Navigating complexity, risk and benefit in ‘sensitive’ research with children
Helen Beckett, Camille Warrington, Claire Soares
What’s the issue?
Whilst there is a growing recognition of the importance of involving children and young people in research, this does not yet equally extend to all areas of research or all groups of children and young people. This is particularly true of research on topics that are thought to be ‘too sensitive’ or research seeking to involve those deemed ‘too vulnerable’ by virtue of their life experiences (Powell et al., 2018; 2020). This has implications not only for children and young people’s right to have a say about matters that affect them, but also for our understanding of the realities of their lives and what they need us to hear and do about issues they face.
Involving children and young people in sexual abuse research is one such area. As those directly affected by the issue, children and young people have unique and critical insights to offer to our understanding of abuse and how we might better prevent, identify and respond to it. Yet anxiety about sensitivities, vulnerabilities and potential harms can frequently stymy consideration of any potential benefits that participants may gain from taking part, or their right to avail of such opportunities (Bovarnick et al. 2018).
Reconciling these perceived tensions between children and young people’s participation and protection rights (Lansdown, 2020; Warrington and Larkin, 2020) is at the heart of our approach to engaging children and young people in sexual abuse research at the Safer Young Lives Research Centre. Over the last 15 years we have developed ways to navigate these complexities and challenges, and engaged over 1300 children and young people in a range of qualitative and mixed methods studies around sexual abuse. Examples include:
In this blog, we share some of our learning from this work, reflecting on the importance of creating safe spaces for children and young people to share their views about ‘sensitive’ issues such as sexual abuse, the benefits they can gain from this and the trauma-informed approach that underpins our work. We also invite you to join us on the next stage of our learning journey; initially through taking part in a survey to share your views and experiences about the challenges of, and learning around, safely and ethically engaging children and young people in sexual abuse research.
Why is it important to involve children and young people in sexual abuse research?
Finding ways to safely and ethically engage children and young people in sexual abuse research matters on so many different levels, but here are a few of the most pressing reasons.
Understanding harm and associated needs: Research that has engaged children and young people, consistently shows us that they are navigating significant levels of (potential) harm that are frequently unknown to parents/guardians or professionals. It also demonstrates a frequent dissonance between children and young people’s priorities in the aftermath of abuse, and those of the individuals and agencies tasked with their care (Allnock et al, 2022). Whilst the retrospective accounts of adult survivors offer important insights and learning in this regard, there remains a need to also learn from children and young people given the ever-changing nature of the harms that they face and the changing perceptions that time and ageing brings.
Challenging stigma: Failing to create these opportunities plays into the societal stigma and silencing that frequently surrounds sexual abuse; colluding with the unhelpful message that these experiences are too shameful, too taboo to talk about. It can send the message to those who have experienced such abuse that they are somehow too vulnerable or too damaged to be given the consideration and opportunities afforded their peers. It can leave them feeling that they are now solely defined by this experience in the eyes of others, something that many participants in our research tell us is the opposite of what they want (Beckett and Warrington, 2015; Warrington et al, 2017).
Upholding rights: As noted above, there is often a perceived tension between children’s rights to participation and their right to protection, with the latter frequently prioritised at the expense of the former (Warrington and Larkin, 2019). Whilst risk of harm must of course be a central concern in any research, risk exists both in relation to involving, and not involving, children and young people and we must be careful to ensure that professional anxiety around this does not unnecessarily deny children and young people access to opportunities they may wish to avail of and benefit from.
The benefits of engagement
Children and young people who have participated in our research over the last 15 years – and gatekeepers who have supported their involvement – have shared many benefits that can ensue from involvement in research about abuse. These include:
Such reflections show that, when approached with due care and consideration, research can provide an important forum in which to emphasise the validity of voice, choice and control; particularly critical factors for those who have had these undermined by an experience of abuse.
A trauma-informed approach to research
We are acutely aware that ethical practice is not a static framework; it is a living and shifting endeavour that challenges us to constantly reflect, learn and adapt. It requires us to exercise vulnerability in sharing when things did not go as planned, and to think about how we might ‘do better’ next time. We are incredibly fortunate to be supported in this endeavour by our Young Researchers Advisory Panel and some excellent practice partners who help us work out how we reconcile children’s participation and protection rights, in a field of work that can be fraught with tensions and challenges.
We have found that adopting a trauma-informed lens helps us understand the complexities of these tensions and challenges, and provides us with a reference point through which to begin to address them. Being trauma-informed does not mean we are trauma-specialists (though we do utilise the expertise of those who are), but that we seek to understand the impacts and manifestations of trauma, and to integrate this into the design and conduct of our research to promote and protect participant wellbeing. Amongst other things, this means that we:
Continuing the learning journey together
Whilst there are many ethical guidelines and resources that can helpfully guide thinking on involving children and young people in sexual abuse research, including ERIC, there remains a need for further capacity-building around the practical application of ethical principles and the real life challenges associated with involving children and young people in research in this specific context.
‘Learning Together’ seeks to support this learning through sharing real-life research scenarios and resources (like those produced by ERIC) and facilitating interactive online opportunities for peer learning. The project also encompasses a youth-led component about what safe and ethical research in this field means to them.
We are starting the project with a survey that seeks to map out the challenges people face when researching, or seeking to undertake research, in this field, and any associated learning they have experienced around this. The findings of this survey will inform the focus of the remainder of the project, which will run throughout 2023. There are two surveys – one for those who have involved children in sexual abuse research and one for those who have not yet, but would like to. The surveys run until Monday 14th November, and you can find out more about them here.
Helen Beckett is Director of the Safer Young Lives Research Centre and a Reader in Child Protection and Children’s Rights at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. She has been undertaking research with children and young people for the last 25 years, with a particular focus on researching child sexual abuse – and safe and ethical ways of involving children and young people in this work – since 2009.
Camille Warrington is a Senior Research Fellow and Participation Lead at the Safer Young Lives Research Centre. She is an applied researcher specialising in qualitative, participatory and creative research practices to support children’s rights in the field of interpersonal, domestic and sexual violence.
Claire Soares is a Research Fellow at the Safer Young Lives Research Centre. For the last six years her research has been focussed on child sexual abuse and she has worked across a range of primarily qualitative projects that have explored different aspects of this, with an emphasis on foregrounding the views of children and young people themselves.
Allnock, D., Beckett, H., Soares, C., Starbuck, L., Warrington, C., and Walker, J. (2022). Learning from the Experts: Understanding the mental health and emotional wellbeing needs of those who experience sexual abuse in adolescence. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.
Beckett, H. and Warrington, C. (2015). Making Justice Work: Experiences of criminal justice for children and young people affected by sexual exploitation as victims and witnesses. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.
Bovarnick, S., with Peace, D., Warrington, C. and Pearce, J. (2018). Being heard: Promoting children and young people’s involvement in participatory research on sexual violence. Findings from an international scoping review. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.
Lansdown, G. (2020). Strengthening child agency to prevent and overcome maltreatment. Child abuse and Neglect, 110(1).
Powell, M. A., Graham, A., McArthur, M., Moore, T., Chalmers, J., & Taplin, S. (2020). Children’s participation in research on sensitive topics: Addressing concerns of decision-makers. Children’s Geographies, 18(3), 325-338.
Powell, M. A., McArthur, M., Chalmers, J., Graham, A., Moore, T., Spriggs, M., & Taplin, S. (2018). Sensitive topics in social research involving children. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 21(6), 647-660.
Warrington, C. and Larkins, C. (2019). Children at the centre of safety: challenging the false juxtaposition of protection and participation. Journal of Children’s Services, 14(3), 133-142.
Warrington, C. with Beckett, H., Ackerley, L., Walker, M. and Allnock, D. (2017). Making Noise: Children’s voices for positive change after sexual abuse. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England.