A CHILDREN’S charity volunteer has opened up about her work to help more than 200 children and teenagers to recover from devastating life experiences, a challenge that has become more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic.

Emma Roberts, who has volunteered at the NSPCC’s North Wales service centre in Prestatyn for seven years, said every week she faces the challenge of “developing a trusting relationship” with children who have suffered from abuse and trauma.

This has included children as young as four-years-old who have been subjected to horrific treatment such as mental, physical and sexual abuse.

Since she joined in 2013, Mrs Roberts has found that shame is “one of the biggest emotions” that vulnerable young people face, which can often be expressed as aggression or anger.

The charity’s Letting the Future In programme has helped a total of 229 young people aged four to 17 to rebuild their lives in weekly sessions for up to a year or more, in which they are encouraged to come to terms with what has happened to them and move forward in a positive way.

“When children come through our door they either want you to fix them or think that because they have lived with this abuse that they are damaged or broken and that there’s nothing that can be done,” Mrs Roberts said.

“What we do is provide a safe space for children and young people to explore, question and understand the past events of their lives so we can support their emotional and developmental recovery.

“Shame is one of the biggest emotions we help children and young people to overcome, but also vulnerability, embarrassment, anxiety and anger.

“Parents and carers might comment that their child is very aggressive and angry, but when you start to unpick it, it is actually hurt, disappointment and upset.”

Mrs Roberts said that “every child is different” and respond in various ways to counselling and support services, with some unable to express their feelings as they have been “shut off from their emotions for such a long time”.

“Whilst some children display a lot of emotion, others are completely withdrawn and dissociating,” she said. “You would look at them and think that everything was fine. They nod and smile and present like there is nothing about the world that frightens them.

“It’s only by developing a trusting relationship with children over time that you can start to understand and discover that there is an awful lot more going on for that young person.

“Often children don’t have the words to express how they are feeling or what has happened to them. Sometimes they have been shut off from their emotions for such a long time because they are trying to self-preserve and they haven’t been able to address their trauma.”

Mrs Roberts said the Letting The Future In sessions aim to teach children how to develop coping strategies and a more positive personal image using fun activities and art.

She said the North Wales coastline and woodland also provides a haven for young people to express themselves and reconnect with their emotions.

“We can help by teaching them more effective coping strategies to help them develop a healthy sense of self and a feeling of well-being,” she said. “We use toys, sand trays, puppets and creative arts to enable children to express how they are feeling, and at the moment because of the pandemic we have an individual resource pack for each child.”

“Sometimes we hold sessions at the beach, using the natural environment to help children recognise their strengths and identify support networks.

“The pebble or shell they might choose to represent themselves during a session is always very telling, sometimes it will be a very small and seemingly insignificant pebble, other times it will be a strong and dominating pebble or shell.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, UK figures showed that one in 20 young people had been forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities either in person or online, often by someone they know.

It is expected that demand for the NSPCC's services will grow in the coming months as disclosures are made following extensive periods at home for vulnerable children.

“For me, one of the most worrying things is that lots of people still think that being at home is safe,” said Mrs Roberts.

“We are hearing this a lot around the pandemic – stay home and stay safe. Unfortunately staying home for some children doesn’t mean staying safe.

“We are seeing the impact that Covid-19 is having on children and it is a concern that there are children and young people spending a significant period of time at home without external distractions or coping strategies.

“We need to be looking at the emotional wellbeing of children and young people in our communities because we all have a responsibility to keep children safe.

“There’s so much to consider during lockdown, but it’s important we keep that contact. Children are having additional worries on top of everything else they are going through and it’s been particularly difficult for children who experience anxiety or find it difficult maintaining appropriate relationships.”

Children and young people can be referred to the Letting the Future In programme via professionals as well as the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC), and raising awareness of the services is key so that victims know they can seek help.

“As we become a society that’s more aware, we are exposing this type of abuse so that it isn’t brushed under the carpet,” added Mrs Roberts. “We are trying to educate people and it is beneficial because more abuse is being reported and more children can get help.

“That’s positive because I don’t for a moment think that it wouldn’t be happening – it would be happening behind closed doors.”

For more information about the Letting the Future In programme in North Wales contact northwales@nspcc.org.uk or 01745 772100.