Research Realities: A ChildLine study of family relationships

The NSPCC has analysed ChildLine findings about children’s experiences of family life. Researcher James Blewett summarises the findings


Title: Children talking to ChildLine about family relationship problems

Authors: NSPCC research department

Institutions: The NSPCC’s research department is based within the NSPCC but has links to several academic institutions across the UK.

Available: The research was published by the NSPCC in 2008.


ChildLine is the best known and largest telephone support line for children in the UK. It was established in 1986 and in recent years has been a service provided by the NSPCC. It has 14 regional centres and about 1,400 volunteers, who provide a counselling service to children and young people, overseen by a team of professional supervisors and managers. Every day ChildLine receives about 2,500 calls from children and young people looking for support and advice.

Therefore, ChildLine is able to offer a unique insight into the lives of large numbers of children and young people, many of whom would not come into contact with professionals via conventional referral routes. The NSPCC research department produces regular reports on a variety of children’s experiences under the title ChildLine Casenotes. This particular report focused on children’s experiences and perceptions of relationship problems in their families.


This report was produced from an analysis of the calls received by ChildLine between April 2006 and March 2007 concerning children’s family and relationships problems. When a child or young person talks to ChildLine, the counsellor records the basic details of the caller and their case, including details of other people who may be involved. Counsellors also record additional problems that are discussed.

If a child raises safeguarding concerns then more information is gathered. In 39% of the cases in this period more detailed information was taken by counsellors and the findings of this report are for the most part based on these cases.


In 2006-7, 20,586 children and young people called ChildLine to talk mainly about family relationship problems. This represented 12% of the calls received by the service. In addition, ChildLine received a further 22,704 calls from children wanting to talk about another issue but family and relationship problems arose. For example, one 12-year-old girl rang because of bullying and said: “I haven’t got anyone to talk to about bullying. My Mum and Dad are never around.” So relationship difficulties in families were mentioned by a total of 43,290 children and young people.


Conflict with parents was the most common of these relationship problems (4,215 callers) with most of these callers being girls (78%) and 86% of callers being over 12 (76% of all callers to ChildLine are in this age group).

Many of the callers raised issues that are common in adolescence such as disagreements over friendship groups and staying out late. But a significant minority described more serious conflict, with 18% saying they had been physically abused and 12% emotionally abused. One 15-year-old reported: “I don’t get on with my mum and dad. My dad hits meI told them that I’d call social services and they said that if I did that I would be kicked out.”

Much of the conflict with parents was in the context of parental separation and divorce and many callers described making relationships with parents’ new partners as being a particular problem. Sometimes the arrival of a new partner in the lives of children had made relationships with their birth parents more difficult. A 12-year-old girl reported: “My stepdad moved in over the summer. I feel like mum and him want me out of the family and that he has taken my mum awayI want my mum back, I’ve tried talking to her but she doesn’t listen because she doesn’t want him to be cross with her.”


Alcohol misuse was something that regularly arose in the discussion between the young people and the counsellors when discussing difficulties with parents. For example, a girl aged 11 said: “I’m alone in the house with my sister. Mum and dad have just left, they had a massive fight. Dad has been drinking. He always drinks and then hits us and says it’s our fault and that he wishes we hadn’t been born.”

Difficulties in relationships were not only with parents. A significant number of children (772) identified problems with their siblings. Again most of the callers were girls and they tended to be slightly younger than the average age of callers. Many of the difficulties could be seen as the normal issues in family life. But 9% described serious bullying behaviour. A boy aged 10 said: “My brother has been bullying me for a long time, hitting and punching me. He has given me a black eye in the past. I’m frightened of him. He is always angry and bossing me around.” A number also reported the impact on family life of specific problems with siblings such as substance misuse or self-harm.


A small but significant number of adolescents (99 girls and 4 boys) reported difficulties of being parents themselves. Most of these callers still lived with their own parents or other family members. The minority who were still in a relationship with the other parent found this a source of stress in their lives. While there are many parents living in the community with good support systems, those who called ChildLine were very anxious about the future, felt isolated and desperate about their circumstances, and believed themselves to be ill-equipped parents. As a young woman, now aged 19, said: “My kids are so draining, I can’t look after them anymore. I’ve got two kids. I had one at 17 and one at 18 and they were both a mistake. I’ve got no one to help me with them… I just feel like closing my eyes and never waking up again.”

Stress and anxiety about a wider range of caring responsibilities also cropped up regularly. Half of the children who rang with concerns about their caring role wanted to discuss caring for a parent, while the other half want to talk about caring for their siblings. Sometimes this was because of parental ill-health (physical and mental, including substance misuse) but a significant number cared for siblings because their parents were working long hours.

Although many children feel positive about their caring role, this sample highlighted a sense of stress and isolation. One 10-year-old said: “I’ve got too much to think about, I don’t have any time to play or see my friend. I’ve only got one friend.”

The findings in this report show the extent of emotional problems among children that are bypassed by services. In many cases they would respond to early intervention, suggesting an argument for more investment in this area.


Therapeutic services in schools: Many of the children who call ChildLine would not be reached by conventional routes and it illustrates the point that there are many children living in considerable emotional pain who are not supported by either existing specialist or universal services. The findings in this report therefore support the development of targeted therapeutic services in schools that are able to identify and intervene with vulnerable children.

The importance of early intervention: In conjunction with the point above the findings of this report support the case for early intervention. It was clear that although many of the callers were experiencing very real distress in their lives, problems were at a relatively early stage and not entrenched. If professional support can be offered at this stage it may well achieve positive outcomes.

Parenting programmes for young parents: There are several parenting support services offered in the community through a variety of mechanisms, especially recently by children’s centres. This report however supports the case for the development of specific services for young parents who have to negotiate a set of very specific difficulties in their lives.

Support for children when parents divorce or separate: Divorce and separation is a common feature in the lives of a large number of children. Most are able to cope relatively well with their existing support networks. However, because it is such a common feature of family life, care should be taken not to minimise the pain and distress it causes many children and young people. Specific services can be a valuable component of children and families services in any locality.


The NSPCC has recently published another report in the ChildLine Casenotes series in relation to children and young people’s experiences of being bullied.

In 2004 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study Together and Apart: children and parents experiencing separation and divorce. This provides a powerful insight into children’s experiences of parental conflict.

In relation to young carers, in 2006 Barnardo’s published a very useful report, Hidden Lives, Unidentified Young Carers in the UK.

James Blewett, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London

Published in the 29 January 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading ‘Children’s experiences of family relationships’


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