Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.
Drew Radford [00:00:07] This podcast is part of a series called Supporting Children Through Drought.
G’day, I’m Drew Radford. Throughout this series, we’ve spoken to parents from across South Australia on how they’ve been supporting their children through times of drought. A person who has spent an inordinate amount of time travelling to rural and remote areas, speaking with children and young people about their own experiences, is their Commissioner, Helen Connolly. She joined me in the Emerging Mind studio to discuss what she’s learnt from literally thousands of conversations.
Hellen Connolly [00:00:45] So my role as Commissioner for Children and Young People in the state is a new role. So only commenced in 2017. So I’m the first Commissioner. And so the role, I guess, when they thought about what they wanted was someone who could have an oversight of what was happening for kids in the state and someone who then could, I guess, look at what was happening through the lens of child rights and make sure that we could advocate for what’s the interests and wellbeing of all South Australian children.
Drew Radford [00:01:18] What are some of the ways that you’ve engaged with children and young people in rural and remote communities?
Hellen Connolly [00:01:24] So when I started in the role as commissioner, I thought the most important thing to do was because I had such a broad remit was to try and make sense of it. So I thought the best place to start is to go to the most important people, and that was the kids and young people. And said, Okay, I’m your Commissioner, what do you want me to do? And when I’ve done it, how are you going to know if it has been effective or successful? So I went out and I asked kids what was important to them, what they would change in South Australia to make it better for themselves or all kids. And through that I got an agenda for action. That took me to a lot of regional centres. So my working life, I’ve always had an interest in regional communities and I thought this time was going to be no different. I really needed to connect to them. So I went to a lot of regional towns and I went to big centres. I went to Mount Gambier, I went to Lincoln, I went to Pirie, I went to Port Augusta, I went to the mid-north, I went to the Riverland; you name it I kind of went there. And what happened at the end of that when I was bringing together all of the information, was essentially that kids in the regions were a bit different to kids in the city. Whilst they all valued the same things and the same people were important to them, their lifestyles were different. They told me things about being really happy about where they lived, but really wanting some more opportunities. They told me about worrying about having to leave where they’d live, to actually go to Uni and things like that. So I thought, well, this is worth looking at some more. So in my second year, I went back to regional communities and had a focus just on talking to I think over 600 kids on what life was like, and what their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations for their future being regional kids were. And then from there, I then went back the following year and did a real focus in the mid north. And that’s where the Regenerating our Regions report came from. So I think in three years I’ve probably been one of the people who’s consistently gone out to regional kids and made sure that their views are really front and centre in the work that I do.
Drew Radford [00:03:30] This series has covered trying to look at things through your child’s eyes. You must have developed a keen understanding of how children and young people see things in rural and regional South Australia. What are some of the key things you’ve learnt?
Hellen Connolly [00:03:45] It’s really interesting. One of the things that I think is really evident when you go into regional communities is there’s a school generally tucked away off the road a bit and there’s a playground. It’s not terribly many other signs that you’ve visibly see when you go into our towns that say that there are whole hip kids living there. Also, a lot of the tourism information on that stuff doesn’t actually show any children on it. So I have to say that one of the things around kids in regional communities is visibility, that they’re there and people kind of value them. And when I ask particularly rural communities what motivates them as adults, it’s all about the kids. So they talk about this intergenerational legacy, leaving things for their kids, making the farm for the kids, whatever it might be. Yeah, there’s a real disconnect between the narrative of adults and what you see visibly and then what kids are telling you about how they feel valued in that space.
Drew Radford [00:04:46] So that leads onto my next question. And so what advice do you have for adults then, in terms of how to maybe try and see things through their children’s eyes so they get a better understanding and insight to how they feel about things?
Hellen Connolly [00:04:59] So my whole role, it seems, boils down to adults need to value children. And so in valuing children, it’s about actually respecting the fact that they do see the world through different eyes. Adultism is a thing, we can only see through our own perspective. So I guess for me, it’s really important that people, particularly leaders and decision makers in rural and regional communities, actually look at what they offer for kids. So kids talk about opportunities a lot in regional towns. They know that kids in the city have more art and craft, and music and drama, that they probably have less sport in town. They have a lot of sport in the country. But the other activities aren’t there as much. So certainly local councils and city communities could actually do a lot in terms of, you know, opening up their town hall to hang kids pictures, putting on a blackboard on the street and asking kids their views, whatever it might be. It’s really important that we recognise that they have a right to have a say. But when they do, the stuff they come up with is insightful and actually leads us to some really great solutions.
Drew Radford [00:06:12] In the series, we’ve explored the topic of keeping an open conversation. From your experience, do you have any strategies or insights for adults to encourage children to talk about their worries and feelings so that basically parents and adults can better understand their experiences?
Hellen Connolly [00:06:29] I think adults really struggle to listen. We talk a lot and so we start a conversation with kids, and we say, ‘so, you know, how you feeling?’ So we go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds. So we don’t try to talk to them for ages, and all of a sudden we’re in that zone that we think that we want to engage. And we’ll go into almost what kids describe as being a bit interrogated. So I think it is about recognising just like everywhere, you’ve got to pick your moments. You’ve got to ensure that you’ve built that kind of trust. I think none of us open up to people that we don’t trust. And so how are you going to earn that trust with the kids? What are you going to do to show them that you’re genuinely interested before you get down into the nitty gritty of some of the really hard areas? Yes, for most of us, we would say if you’re not prepared to listen to the easy stuff, why we’re going to trust you and listen to the hard stuff. This is all about relationships. This is all about showing kids that we value them. We trust that they can trust us, that we can work alongside them. And then slowly opening up for discussion. But I think the really important thing is once they start talking, we have to really just sit and listen and not speak. I think the hardest thing for us as adults to do is to not talk and not feel silence and to kind of rush into this ‘Well when I was a kid’, and I think that’s the thing that really turns them off. They go, the world is such a different place from when their parents were kids that really its an unhelpful thing to kind of give solutions that we used to use and not just ask them what they think the solution to the issue is sticking with that kind of thing.
Drew Radford [00:08:14] We looked at the importance of giving children the opportunity to make decisions in the series. That was explored in detail. How can adults and community support children in having their voices heard?
Hellen Connolly [00:08:27] I think it’s about looking where kids are. So one of the things I do a lot is I talk to sports clubs. So kids play sport in racial communities. How often do they have their views asked about how things should operate? It’s all done by adults. What are the things we know that kids turn away from sport because of the fact that adults get in the way of fun and enjoyment. So I think there’s things that we can do around actually ensuring by asking them what makes it fun and enjoyable and keeping them connected. Kids go to school. Really important that school leadership actually engages kids and gives them a voice. So when I look at what kids across the board have said to me, they want a few things. They want to feel known. They want to feel valued. They want to have a voice. And they want to see purpose in what they doing. So I want to say that it’s actually leading to something. When we have those four conditions met, then we’re actually in the space of creating great environments for kids and impacting on their well-being. So how hard is everyone in that community ensure that kids feel known? How do we see when they walk into places that the things that they think are important are on display or on show, not the things that just adults think are important. So it is really about trying to look first, see the world through the eyes of a child, but more importantly, asking kids what that world actually looks like. And when we do that, we’ll be able to actually improve the lot of all of our kids.
Drew Radford [00:09:59] The final episode we actually looked at focus on a positive future, which is not always easy in conditions of drought, something to look forward to a positive future focus. What have you learnt from your work on how to enable children and young people to be supported to focus on a positive future, particularly in difficult conditions like drought?
Hellen Connolly [00:10:19] So I think the one thing that I know about kids living in difficult situations like drought, like poverty, like whatever’s going on in their lives, is that as adults we can assume that they don’t really understand or that it’s not impacting on them in the way that it is. And it is. And in the absence of real information, kids will invent a narrative around what’s going on. I think the most critical thing that any of us can do to create positive future is actually just ask kids how they’re feeling and what we can do to actually support them, to ask them what the support might look like. Because we might come up with something through an adult perspective that says they need to do, I don’t know, they need counselling, they need therapy, whatever the result might be. They might say they actually wouldn’t mind a couple of hours on an Internet game playing with their mates on a Saturday afternoon. You know, I like to think there’s a whole group of things that we assume that we shouldn’t assume. And so a positive future is really about asking them what’s going on and what their solution is in terms of drought.
Drew Radford [00:11:28] What are some of the ideas that children and young people have said to you? And also, the Commission recommends in terms of how to promote a positive future in times of adversity like drought?
Hellen Connolly [00:11:39] So I think in terms in terms of drought, when people are stressed and under pressure, we need to make sure that there’s light and fun and enjoyment in children’s lives, too. So I think that they have a right to play, which is so important. And it’s not just made up. It’s actually because that’s the way kids, you know, learn and learn how to navigate through the world. Play is not pre-schoolers. Play is kids mucking around. Its teenagers hanging out. It’s allowing them to have freedom and space to actually be themselves and to hang with their mates. I think we forget as we get older the value of friendships. And that, that is the most important thing for kids is their friends and their pets. So I think the other really critical thing is respecting the role and value of pets in kids lives. So if I was to say any way of actually ensuring that they can have kind of a view to the future that’s really positive, it’s about enhancing their ability and connexions to mates, pets and grandparents.
Drew Radford [00:12:50] Commissioner for Children and Young People, Helen Connolly, thank you for joining me in the Emerging Mind studio.
Hellen Connolly [00:12:56] It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Narrator [00:13:04] If this podcast brings up any difficult emotions for you, please reach out to someone you can talk to or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Beyondblue support service on 1300 22 4636 at any time.
Drew Radford [00:13:23] Thank you for joining us for our Supporting Children Through Drought podcast series, this podcast series has been made possible by funding from country South Australia Primary Health Network, ending collaboration with parents from Isolated Children’s Parents Association SA Branch, Remote Isolated Children’s Exercise, Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health in Children’s Health, Queensland Hospital and Health Service and School Link and Got It Programmes and New South Wales Health Murrumbidgee Local Health District.
Narrator [00:14:02] Visit our Web site at www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practise brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. Led by Emerging Minds, the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Programme.