Learning from young people: understanding wellbeing after child sexual abuse

Drs Allnock, Warrington and Beckett highlight the importance of learning from those affected by sexual abuse, to make sure our responses meet their needs

2 girls playing playdoh

We know that experiencing sexual abuse has an impact on a young person’s mental health and wellbeing. We are, however, less clear about what should be done, and when, to try and address these effects.

Our new research, funded by the NSPCC and Ecomomic and Social Research Council (ESRC), seeks to address this gap in knowledge. It will create opportunities for young people who have been sexually abused – and those who support them - to safely and meaningfully tell us what they think would help improve their wellbeing. It builds on work that we’re already doing to support children and young people to engage in efforts to prevent, and better respond to, sexual abuse.

There is evidence to show not only that sexual abuse has an effect on a child or young person’s mental health and wellbeing, but also that the way they are affected, and their longer-term outcomes, can vary from person to person (Sawyerr and Bagley, 2017).

This raises interesting – as yet unanswered - questions around whether professionals are adequately identifying, conceptualising and addressing the individual wellbeing and support needs of those who experience abuse. Our new research aims to help answer these questions, from the often unheard perspectives of young people with personal experiences of abuse (Horvath et al 2014; Beckett and Warrington 2015).

Although there are ethical concerns and logistical barriers to engaging with children and young people affected by sexual abuse, there are other important reasons for promoting their engagement in a safe way. We need to recognise and promote children’s own voices and capacity to inform debate, both to empower them personally and to challenge the culture of silence in which abuse can flourish (Warrington et al 2017).

Our research focuses particularly on young people who experienced sexual abuse during adolescence, as their needs are particularly under-researched. We cannot assume that what works for someone who experiences sexual abuse as a younger child will work for someone who experiences it at an older age.

We aim to:

  • map the mental health and wellbeing support needs of young people who experience sexual abuse in adolescence, and consider the relevance of factors such as a young person’s life story and the context they live in
  • learn how we can better identify and respond to, young people’s health and wellbeing needs after sexual abuse, and find out how we can build and support young people’s resilience
  • learn more about how young people define the concepts of mental health, wellbeing and resilience after abuse, and develop a more child-centred theoretical framework for thinking about these issues
  • demonstrate that, if done right, it is both safe and appropriate to involve young people in discussions about these issues - and create a template that others can use to do this
  • create practical resources for young people, parents/carers and professionals that will contribute to better responses to this issue in the future.

Our research builds on work we are already doing to encourage children and young people to engage in efforts to prevent and respond to sexual abuse (Warrington et al 2017; Beckett and Warrington 2015; Beckett et al 2013; Allnock and Miller, 2013) as well as the work on participation being carried out by our partners at the Association for Young People’s Health.

It adopts an integrated, mixed methods approach that places young people’s perspectives at the heart of the work.

We will engage with young people through a series of carefully designed participatory action research workshops. We aim to work with, and learn from, 30-40 “Experts by Experience” - young people, aged 14-18, who have experienced sexual abuse in adolescence.

During the Experts by Experience workshops we will:

  • review – and adapt – our proposed approach with participants
  • spend time exploring the research process and ways in which participants can become active co-creators of knowledge
  • explore young people’s understandings of the concepts of mental health, wellbeing, resilience and recovery, with reference to professional understanding and definitions of these terms
  • develop alternative definitions that align with and reflect the experiences and understanding of the young people whose lives the study is trying to understand, where this is beneficial
  • explore key moments, interventions, activities or factors which young people identify as helping or hindering their sense of wellbeing after abuse
  • explore ways in which these factors could be enhanced or addressed, as appropriate
  • develop a series of “composite case studies” (fictionalised versions of participants’ collective experiences) to illustrate these factors and provide the basis for further dialogue.

The project aims to foster dialogue; mapping differences and similarities in perspective and understanding between different groups. We will also engage professionals and safe parents/carers in group-based discussions, both as separate groups and – later in the project - together with one another and representatives of our Experts by Experience. These interactions will move beyond data-gathering to engage the participants in the process of data analysis and prioritising findings.

The study also includes a literature review and a case-study strand which will inform the discussions and help us to consider the wider systemic factors that individual participants may be unaware of.

We firmly believe that young people have the right to have a say on matters that affect them. Integrating their insights into the way sexual abuse affects them – and the ways in which we can identify and address these effects - can only enhance the relevance of our responses and contribute to better safeguarding in the future.

Research to help children

Read about the 4 new research projects we are funding in partnership with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to find out what works to help children get back on track after abuse. Find out more about the £1.7 million to fund new research into what works for children after abuse.

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