Image Alt

Ethical Research Involving Children

after care and support for children involved in sensitive research

Hello. The aim of my research is to explore children’s experiences of maternal imprisonment in Scotland. There is very little information about the experiences of the children of prisoners. There has been limited research in Scotland, and very little from the perspectives of the child themselves. A consequence of increasing female imprisonment is that incrementally more children are being affected by maternal imprisonment. This is why it is of particular importance to look at children¹s experiences; because despite not being imprisoned themselves, more of them are experiencing prison, despite best efforts to develop alternatives to female imprisonment. By interviewing children directly it will also fill the gap in the research already conducted, which has been, for the most part, extrapolated from the point of view of the mothers and other caregivers rather than the perspective of the children and allowing them to have a voice. In doing so qualitative methodological approaches (one-to-one interviews) and Visual tools (Talking Mats and Photography) have been selected to engage child participants (between the ages of 5-18) for this research. It will address the limited knowledge about the consequences for children affected by maternal imprisonment and it will provide an insight into an area on which there is little literature in Scotland.

I was wondering if you could give me some advice as I have found access and ethics particularity challenging as agencies have not been engaging as they have concerns about after care for the children should something potentially distressing should arise as a result of taking part in the research. Within my research it will never be a deliberate attempt by the researcher to ask a question that could provoke distress for the participant. I acknowledge that the topic in itself is likely to raise distressing issues, if this happens then appropriate action will be taken. For example an information sheet with details of local sources of support will be given to the participant. There will also be time at the end of the interview for an informal chat/debrief to raise any concerns or questions about the research. In addition, prior to the interview I will have discussed with the participants if they would like to identify a key link person who is able and willing to sit and talk with them if there is anything from the interview has distressed them. This could be a social worker, friend or family member or anyone that the participant feels comfortable talking with. The suggested key link person could be asked to proactively talk to the children and young people about the interview; experiences of the research; taking photographs; and to discuss with them what came from the interview. I have even considered paying for a private councillor and still this is not enough for some of the organisations.

So I was wondering if you had any advice, guidance or direction to where I might find information on what is deem appropriate support/ after care for children involved in sensitive research? Sorry for the long winded e-mail.


  • May Karlsen

    March 25, 2015


    I’ve got a particularly interest in doing research with children and found your question here by chance as I was browsing the topic. I did a professional doctorate in counselling psychology a few years back and one of my research projects was a grounded theory research with children aged 6-7 years of age. I am by no means an expert in the field, so read this with that in mind.

    I think it’s really sad that ethics committees see children’s vulnerability as a reason to not ask them important questions about their experiences. It’s as if sensitively asking children questions that may upset them will CAUSE those feelings rather than exploring feelings that are already there and that children are already having to manage, regulate and live with. May we never avoid asking children about experiences that are difficult just because it may open up feelings and reveal information that require continued care! I wonder who we are really protecting by doing this. On the other hand, it’s important to take the ethical consideration seriously. We are in a position of power as adults when engaging children and we need to be extremely sensitive and aware of this. We also need to be able to respectfully and competently handle distress if it surfaces. The trick is to balance our idea of the child as ‘vulnerable’ with our idea of the child as ‘empowered’ – they are both and we can honour and work with both.

    Here are some thoughts for your work with ethics committees based on what helped me.

    1. The researcher’s credibility is important and documenting that you have the experience and knowledge necessary is important (e.g. child protection policy). Of course, being well intentioned isn’t enough. I think ‘selling yourself would be as important as selling the research, granted that you really do have what it takes, of course.

    2. Outline all the benefits of taking part – both for the organization and the children involved. Being heard, having a say, empowerment, chance to contribute to the field and in the lives of other children, feedback with summary of findings are important benefits in addition to debrief (which should be offered all participants) and aftercare where needed. It also needs to be worth it for the organization. Find out what they want and how the research can fit into their objectives as an organization (e.g. featuring in research articles, using the findings for their own reports and service development, being forward thinking, creating links with the community and other organisations etc)

    3. Making a real contribution to the field and to other children is important if we are to put both organisations and children through this long process. It’s important that the research isn’t just a part of passing a course. The vision needs to be publication or in other ways making it available to people so that it can have a wider impact.

    Good luck!!

Post a Comment