The impact of shared information in focus groups on children’s relationships. By Hilde Lauwers
The Flemish Commission of Children’s Rights (Kinderrechtencommissariaat) commissioned Research Centre Childhood & Society (Kind & Samenleving) to construct a questionnaire to determine the incidence and prevalence of child abuse and negligence in Flanders. The questionnaire focused on children between 10 and 18 years old. To do so, international questionnaires were compared, analysed and adapted to the Flemish context. Based on interviews with experts as well as children and young people, the questionnaire was adapted further.
Through extensive conversations with children and young people about care, authority and punishment, a broader framework of care and authority relationships was constructed. We organized eight focus groups with in total 46 boys and girls aged between 10 and 18 years. Each focus group consisted of six to eight children and assembled three times for a discussion. During the first discussion they talked about care and neglect, in the second about authority and punishment, in the third about their attitudes towards abuse and neglect.
The ethical challenge:
Focus group discussions are very apt for research with children. The inequality between children and the adult researcher is far less outspoken than in an individual interview with an adult stranger. The overall atmosphere is less formal; less like research and more like a natural conversation.
However, as in every focus group discussion or interview, difficult experiences can unexpectedly be expressed and they can make a deep impression on the participating children. In discussions on care, authority, punishment, abuse and neglect this is even more likely. Although our questions were framed in such a way that we did not focus on personal experiences, but on their general views on children and care/authority, the participants could have been confronted (directly or indirectly) with abuse and neglect. During the focus group discussions, these experiences can come to the surface. What’s more, the focus group’s discussions can operate as an opener of a Pandora’s box, revealing hidden thoughts and emotions.
In addition to the sensitivity of the research theme for the individual participants, these discussions could also influence the interpersonal relationships of the participants. During the discussions, some children spoke about harsh punishments. Other children reacted with astonishment: “That is child abuse!”. Did this information alter the relationship of the children? Will the revelations of harsh punishments later be used during disputes? Although we told the participants that the focus group discussions were confidential, we did not have any influence on what would happen afterwards.
To make the focus group discussions as safe as possible for the participating children, we took the following measures:
Contributed by: Hilde Lauwers, Research Centre Childhood & Society, Brussels (Belgium).