Research with children: upsetting for whom?

Written by Samita Wilson, PhD candidate from the University of Stavanger (UiS), Norway

Samita discovered a number of reasons why children and young people wants to contribute to research. Photo: Colorbox

Over the past thirty years, there has been increasing interest in the experiences of children and young people. It has also been argued that in research about Child Protection Services, the involvement of children and young people is limited. My PhD research project sought to address this gap. As a part of my research, I interviewed children and young people from minority backgrounds about their experiences of being with Child Protection Services (CPS) in Norway. 

Samita interviewed children and young people with minority background about their experiences with Child Protection Services (CPS) in Norway. Photo: Colorbox.

When protection increases vulnerability  

In order to access children, I contacted adults in in CPS offices, schools, and activity clubs, as well as local community leaders. While some grown-ups supported the aim of this research and the importance of listening to children, there was a general sense of ‘paternalism’ and ‘protectionism’ towards children in the field. Grown-ups in the latter group seemed to believe that children would get upset by the research invitation as they felt shame to be in CPS. Despite their good intention of protecting ‘vulnerable’ children from participating in potentially sensitive research on their time with CPS can add to their vulnerability. As this protective attitude could result in hindering the child’s right to information, participation, and being heard. Consequently, children would lose out on an opportunity to improve the services being delivered to them by CPS.  

Children and young people should be heard. That makes their involvement in research projects so valuable. Photo: Colorbox.

Children’s motivations for participation  

This research project involved voluntary participation. Children were informed about the objectives and had consented to be part of the research. They had a right to say no to participate, to not answer any question that they may not want to, and to leave the research project anytime without giving any reason. A few children did assert those rights during the data collection. 

I discovered a range of reasons why children and young people participated in my research. During the interviews, the children (all names are anonymised) told about their motivation for participating. Following are some of the points that children mentioned as their motivation for participating:

  •  “I have not told others, what I am telling you….”

For 17-year-old Zarah, this was an opportunity to share what she actually felt and experienced. This was not an investigative interview as those conducted by CPS where she had to be careful about what she tells; neither was this an inquiry from her family or people she knows. However, I was not a total stranger either. She knew that I am researcher from an immigrant background, whose work is to explore and understand how children experience being with CPS in Norway. Everything that she tells me would remain anonymous and confidential. This made her feel safe enough to share her story with me, for which I am grateful. 

  • “I want to help other children through sharing my story…”

Zoe (16 years) wanted to help other children by voicing her experiences and sharing her story with me. While I could not promise that this research would influence the policies and practices in CPS, there was still a sliver of hope that it might. She shared her story hoping that it would make a positive difference somewhere for someone at least. That her difficulties will not go in vain, and that someone can benefit from it. This kind of hope can contribute towards children’s empowerment, positive self-esteem and resilience. 

  • “I just want to help you get your PhD…”

Marianne (16 years) was altruistic as well. However, her motivation to participate in the research was to help me: A female PhD student from Pakistan. She was very generous with sharing her experiences and reflections on her time of being with CPS. This was an empowering position for Marianne that she was able to help a grown-up to achieve something in comparison to her being dependent on grown-ups in CPS to help her. 

  • “It helped me to own my story….”

For Zoe and some other children, the interview helped them to hear their story and take an ownership of it. Going through the CPS process (reporting, investigation, intervention etc.) was so stressful that they never got a chance to reflect on their experiences and talk to someone about it. Therefore, participating in the interview and talking about their lives helped them to acknowledge that it is their life; they were able to reflect on the choices they made and how all these experiences have made them stronger. 

  • “I like talking to people, so here I am….”

Jane (19 years) feels strongly that CPS is an important institution for children in need and it needs to be improved. Therefore, it seemed like that she takes up any opportunity that might have a chance of improving the services. Her initial knowledge about my study came through a grown-up. She agreed to participate because she was curious about the research, wanted to help and, she liked meeting new people. She felt comfortable about sharing her experiences in a non-judgemental and safe environment. 

Many of the young people who contributed to the study, felt empowered by sharing their experiences. Photo: Colorbox.

Empowered by contributing 

Most of the young people participating in the research grew up in difficult circumstances and had contacted CPS themselves to seek help. Their stories were not pleasant. It was hard to imagine that children had to go through so many hardships both at home and then while receiving help from CPS. However, previous research shows that children do not always agree to the label ‘vulnerable’ being ascribed to them. They see themselves as survivors and resilient. For most of the children in this research, the neglect and abuse at home was a ‘normal’ reality of their life for about 15 to 16 years. Even though they were aware that what is happening at home is not right, it was still their normal life. While their experiences were hard and was not always easy to talk about, the above statements show that children found sharing their stories as therapeutic, cathartic, empowering and social. This is what they had gone through and they should be appreciated for making it through to the other side.

Let’s listen to the children! 

While I learned a lot from these children, the most important one is that protecting children “too much” can be harmful for them. Their right to protection should not come at the cost of their right to information and participation as this can make them even more vulnerable. Adults should not make unilateral decisions on behalf of children. Rather we should invite children to participate in research and let them decide to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to participation.