Published On: Sun, May 12th, 2024
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Esther Rantzen’s daughter Rebecca Wilcox takes ChildLine role from terminally ill mother | UK | News

When Rebecca Wilcox picked up her first call at ChildLine to a youngster threatening to end their life, she had an excellent role model to draw on. As Esther Rantzen’s daughter, she had learnt from a young age about the importance of keeping children safe.

Her very first call after taking over the ChildLine role from her terminally ill mother was from a child attempting suicide. Rebecca, whose mother founded ChildLine in 1986, acted quickly and calmly, working with her team to keep her young subject talking until an emergency services were called.

Rebecca, a TV presenter, recalled: “I felt a great overwhelming need to protect this young person from the horrible internal narrative they were suffering with. After assessing the situation, we decided we had to call an ambulance.”

Rebecca, a mother of two, added: “Growing up with mum gave me a huge insight into just how valuable a resource ChildLine is.

“Mum would come home and tell us of [anonymised] case studies about how ChildLine could have a huge effect in real and positive ways. ChildLine also affected legislation and how we as a society viewed our children and how we saw parenting and the importance of listening to children.”

Recent figures show suicide is the second biggest reason for calling ChildLine which carried out 188,000 counselling sessions last year. However there are many other reasons children call the service which was the first national helpline for children in danger or distress.

Last year, ChildLine identified 99,630 children experiencing emotional abuse, which now account for 52 percent of its calls – a five percent rise on 2022.

Other concerns – in rank order – include depression and low mood, problems with family relationships, self-harm, friendship problems and bullying. Problems with school, sex and relationships, sexual abuse and exploitation are also among the major concerns affecting children who call the service as well as self image and eating disorders.

Rebecca’s comments follow recent figures which show one in five 13-14 year olds has a probable eating disorder, and one in six 12-15 year olds self-harmed in the last 12 months.

At the same time, 18 percent of children aged seven to 16, and 22 percent of young people aged 17 to 24, have a probable mental health illness – a rise from one in nine children in the same age groups before the pandemic.

Former BBC Watchdog presenter Rebecca, said: “Whether they are lonely or hungry or even have a blade to their wrist, many children are struggling today and it is really important children are aware of ChildLine where they can have a safe space to discuss what is worrying them and that we will listen to every child that we can and aim to empower them to help themselves.”

She added: “Many children are experiencing such grown-up traumatic issues that would floor most adults and the support in the social care system is just not there for so many of them. It can become overwhelming.”

Rebecca, who began deputising her mother’s presidential role at ChildLine last December, started her training as a volunteer counsellor after Dame Esther stepped back following her terminal lung cancer diagnosis.

She said her mother would remain the charity’s figurehead despite her illness.

“When I was asked to take on the mantle after my mother resigned last year, I felt so privileged,” said Rebecca. “I always knew I wanted to continue my connection with the charity after mum died and I was going to train as a counsellor. However, my mum’s association with the charity is a lifetime privilege and she will remain its president.”

Rebecca, who has children Benji, 11, and Alexander, nine, added: “When we got mum’s diagnosis we thought things would happen at a pace and thinking of ways of keeping her memory alive.

“I wanted a personal association with her after her death. I never expected them to ask me to do something so huge. I am possibly not aware of just how huge. I like denial, it’s something mum and I have in common.

“ChildLine is such a brilliant charity, it’s wholly unique, giving children a voice, and allowing them a safe space to speak.”

She added: “All those years ago I don’t think anyone realised there was a vacuum to be filled, yet there was still so much resistance towards trusting children and listening to them. It worried a lot of people, but mum has always enjoyed talking to children, possibly more than adults.”

Rebecca believes her own campaigning zeal is inherited from her parents – her late father TV producer Desmond Wilcox was also passionate about helping others.

She said: “I am happier when I am campaigning than when I am not. I always wanted to be a volunteer and I love the connection of being a counsellor. Seeing how precious and delicate and sensitive my own children are at home is important.

“And we know that on average seven children in every classroom will experience abuse by the age of 18. We are doing something wrong as a society to allow this to happen.

“Much of it is almost invisible emotional abuse but it still has a resounding effect particularly if your day to day life and safe space is violated by a parent, carer or loved one.

“Counselling for ChildLine is the most rewarding thing you can be involved with. I treasure my time in the counselling room and it gives frontline experience of the charity’s work.

“I don’t know whether it was an accident of genetics or the visual representation and example of my parents who were both huge charity supporters and campaigners. Dad was a supporter of the British Heart Foundation and also Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

“Mum also had stories from That’s Life and from ChildLine and Silverline. She always championed causes that might otherwise go unnoticed.”

Rebecca, one of three children added: “We had so much as kids in terms of love and support. My parents always listened to me and spoke to me with respect. They gave us a great education and we were brought up to understand the importance of giving back to people who did not have such support like the children who do not feel safe in their own homes.

“It’s obviously hard to juggle that when you are working and bringing up children and I have no childcare. I’m dropping balls everywhere, It would be impossible to do this and juggle my work without my extended family support.

“But childhood is precious and short and sometimes it’s horrible and this is why ChildLine aims to be there. We need to be there when it’s horrible.”

Rebecca is supporting the NSPCC annual fundraiser Childhood Day on June 7.

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