Speech by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley at the CiNi Conference on Resilience

Ladies and Gentlemen thank for inviting me to address you today. The topic is one close to my heart 

It is also one that I know my office is concerned about, and one I know my staff are deeply and emotionally committed to addressing.

Resilience comes with many definitions. The word itself dates back to the 17th Century…and this alone shows that we’re not dealing with a new problem. We’re dealing with a new set of circumstances in the 21st Century. That is not to say that we can afford, nor would we want to, try to reinvent the wheel. Rather we want it to roll the wheel better.

Among the many definitions is one in Miriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary which says resilience, and emotional resilience specifically, is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”

In simple terms, I like to describe resilience, as “an ability to bounce back”. 

Children have always faced many challenges in our society; difficulties have not just emerged over the last few years. For over thirty years our children have grown up in a violent society where too many have witnessed family and friends dying; too many have been affected by the sectarian conflict of Northern Ireland; too many see the differences rather than what we have in common.

We have children living in our country who have been marginalised because they belong to a Travelling Community, have a different ethnic background, were born with a physical or learning disability, and those who have had to witness the death of a parent, or manage the care of their parents; we have children living with us who have had to accept responsibilities that we as adults struggle to manage.

I meet these children all the time, and am hugely impressed – and humbled – by the physical and emotional resilience displayed by many of them.

So why am I interested in this issue? Well, as Commissioner for Children and young people it is my job to promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people. I believe that in doing this I am required to look at children and young people’s lives in the round, and for me this starts with promoting good emotional well-being and resilience in children and young people.

I must listen to what children and young people have to say about their lives. I must listen to what they say, what they want changed, what they need, and to listen to their calls for help.

What I must also do is listen and be aware that the majority of Northern Ireland’s children and young people have little or no problems in finding and using that ability to ‘bounce back’. Of the 500,000 children and young people I work on behalf of, most can call on family and friends when they need help bouncing back, or have diversionary support in terms of sports, the arts or other outlets.

Unfortunately for too many resilience can be compromised and undermined. The tragic story of 16-year-old Dean Clarke from Belfast’s Tiger’s Bay was heard through the tears of his mother across Northern Ireland on Monday, his emotional barriers torn down by drugs and the killer parasites who peddle depression and death for an easy buck.

The tragic tale of a teenage girl, who last week took her own life – her priest saying that “she was the last person you could have expected to do this; she was such a popular young girl”

The tragedy, we at NICCY, experienced when a young person we worked with, cherished and admired, died too soon.

For these young people the resilience that many take for granted lay shattered, the ability to bounce back lost.

In my day-to-day work I have met many, who, in the face of adversity, are not able to bounce back.

The circumstances they find themselves in shocks and challenges us all to act.

There are children those who because of the difficulties in their lives are struggling to cope, the young people, who because of their challenging behaviour are not educated within mainstream schools, children who require therapy to help them deal with the trauma experienced because of abuse and neglect, the children whose lack of hope leads them to self harming and suicidal behaviour.

It is my job to ensure that the rights of these young people are met, in the same way that all children’s rights should be met. So what am I thinking about in particular? I’m thinking about the rights these children have to access support, education, counselling; their rights to protection, to feel safe and well cared for; their rights to being able to express their views and to have those views taken seriously.

You may know that we at NICCY have just completed significant fieldwork with more than 2,000 children and young people on the state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland.

We spoke to children in nurseries, from the age of three, children in primary, post primary and alternative education settings, children in care, in Hydebank, children in youth clubs, and children marginalised through a range of support groups. The views of all those children and young people will be fed into a report, along with a review of research and policy, which we will use to set our new priorities and inform our next corporate plan.

We are not going out to consult on our findings until later in the month, but I’m sure I won’t be breaking confidences if I share with you, some of the issues, which children told us that relate to their emotional well-being.

Lots of children told us they have no-one to talk to, especially when they are feeling down; some have praised the presence of school counsellors whom they can access independently from their teachers; other children have told us of the pain of being bullied and the impact that has on them, and of course we have heard stories from children about self harm and suicide.

The research we at NICCY have just completed has clearly identified for us, the problems, it is now my job, as Commissioner for Children and Young people to ensure that Government puts the solutions in place.

It is my view, that we need to start at the very beginning, by providing sound advice and support to parents, around child development, managing behaviour, building confidence and self esteem, protecting children, encouraging play and learning, and the list goes on.

We need to offer support to families as children grow and develop, so that they can provide stable, secure happy homes. We need to ensure that children have access to good quality early years education, where they can begin to explore their learning opportunities in safe, creative environments; we need to provide children with play opportunities.

As a child enters school, we need to be confident that the education provided meets the child’s needs. We need to make sure that the challenges of school are not insurmountable. And then we need to think of the help required when developing into adolescence, where often the problems, seem overwhelming for some.

It is inevitable that along the way there will be difficult times, and where it will be necessary to reach out with additional help and support to ensure the difficulties are managed. Now I do not claim to be an expert on building resilience in children, but I know that some of the main ingredients associated with resilience include having secure attachments to significant others, the absence of early loss and trauma, high self-esteem and social empathy, and an easy temperament. Unfortunately, not all children will have these, and may therefore not be able to cope.

It is my hope over the next four years that I will be able to do a number of things for the children who are not able to cope. Firstly I hope to meet children, to hear their stories; I want to give them a voice through the work programmes being developed in my office, including access to a complaints procedure; I want to advise the Government if the evidence indicates that they are not meeting their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and I will not shy away from legal challenges if the situation requires it.

In conclusion, my job – and my passion – is to make sure we as a society in Northern Ireland care for, protect, and support children.

We as a society are already short changing our children. In Northern Ireland we spend 14.1% of our personal social services budget on children.

To me that is clear discrimination against children. It is clear that in the past we have not regarded or thought of children as people too. The American Actress Kirsty Alley of Cheers fame put it well when she said:

“I don’t think that children are any more resilient than anyone else. They’re just people with little bodies.”

They’re just people.

And they are people we spend too little money, time and resources on. Put simply we in this room must work together to change that now.

Thank you for your time.