Making noise: children’s voices for positive change after sexual abuse

A study of children and young people’s experiences of help-seeking and support after child sexual abuse in the family 

Making noise: children’s voices for positive change after sexual abuseThe Making Noise research project looked at the perspectives of children and young people affected by child sexual abuse (CSA) in the family environment.

The research aimed to improve understanding of the experiences of children and young people in recognising, identifying and disclosing CSA in the family environment; ways in which they seek help and support; their experience of contact with services as a result of reporting CSA; and seeking children and young people’s views on how such processes could be improved.

53 children and young people aged 6 to 19 years who were receiving support for experiences of CSA in the family environment took part in the study as well as 30 participants aged 14 to 19 who attended three focus groups for young people from minority ethnic communities, disabled young people, and boys and young men. Survey data was also collected from 75 respondents aged 11 to 17 years.

The study was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England and carried out in 2015/16 by staff from the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking, at the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with the NSPCC.


Key findings from the report

  • Professionals and other adults may miss signs of children’s sexual abuse. This places responsibility upon children and young people to actively seek help in the event of child sexual abuse (CSA) in the family environment.
  • The majority of children and young people did not feel that disclosure was likely or possible for most children in their position. 
  • Children and young people delayed disclosure for at least one year after the onset of the abuse. The study found examples where disclosure was delayed to be between seven and 12 years. In the majority of cases abuse had continued throughout this period.
  • The reasons why children and young people don’t disclose CSA in the family environment are complex. These include:
     
    • understanding of whether abuse had taken place (and ability to articulate this)
    • whether they thought they would be believed or not
    • anticipation of shame, embarrassment and stigma 
    • whether they were confident or not they would be safe and get support
    • worry about the consequences for their family relationships and family members.
    These were often compounded by the nature of children’s familial ties to the perpetrator.
  • Children report being most likely to disclose their experiences of abuse to their non-abusing mother, or a friend in the case of female children and young people.
  • There is evidence that particular groups of children and young people – for example disabled children and young people; those from some minority ethnic communities; boys and young men and care experienced children and young people – are likely to face additional barriers to identification or disclosure.
  • Given the delays and barriers to children disclosing their sexual abuse, adults need support to recognise or help identify signs of children’s experiences of abuse.
  • Identification and disclosure of CSA in the family environment often represents the beginning of challenging and difficult processes for children and young people. Recognising the particular vulnerabilities associated with identification or disclosure is vital for professionals wishing to provide effective support in the aftermath of CSA in the family environment.
  • Following identification of CSA in the family environment, children report impacts on their family life. These include:

    • increased division and conflict
    • rejection and blame from family members;
    • difficult family dynamics and/or negative impacts on the emotional wellbeing of non-abusing family members.
    Conversely, some children and young people reported increased physical safety, access to emotional support and strengthened relationships within their families following identification of abuse.
  • Children and young people hold a deep sense of responsibility for changes to both family relationships and family members’ wellbeing. This is catalysed by the identification of abuse. Often these concerns further prevent children from talking about abuse.
  • Children removed from the family home after experiences of CSA carry additional burdens, including significant loss and a sense of dislocation. Even when children recognise and value physical safety, the emotional burdens are profound.
  • The needs of 16/17 year olds who are removed from the family home following identification of CSA in the family environment can be poorly responded to. Recognition of trauma, associated needs for psychological support and help to make transitions to adult services are often lacking.
  • Over half of children and young people  interviewed highlighted the need for professional support for family members.
  • Support to non-abusing family members is critical for helping children and young people after experiences of CSA in the family environment. Benefits include:
      • addressing parents’ and carers’ own support needs
      • helping parents and carers to better understand and respond to their children’s needs 
      • promoting family stability and safe positive relationships
      • reducing the additional burden on children and young people of the responsibility they feel for their families’ wellbeing.
  • Professional responses to children and young people’s experiences of CSA within the family environment can be experienced as both helpful and supportive and as subjecting children to further challenges, disruption and distress. 
  • Children and young people  self-report mental health difficulties following CSA in the family environment, including self-harm, depression, anxiety, flashbacks, dissociation, low self-esteem, aggressive and/or anti-social behaviour, psychosis and suicide attempts.
  • There is a critical role for appropriate therapeutic support that addresses children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health needs post abuse. 
  • While the thought of accessing therapeutic support could be an intimidating one, children and young people highlighted the significant positive difference that such work had made to them. Key benefits include:

    • a safe space in which to process what had happened
    • knowing others have comparable experiences; 
    • being believed; 
    • countering stigma, isolation and self-blame; 
    • the development of coping strategies and wider confidence and resilience building. 
  • Children and young people report that social workers hold an important role in facilitating physical safety and signposting to other services, but express mixed feelings towards some aspects of social work interventions. 
  • Transition to adult services was a critical issue for older young people.
    • Children and young people had fears around what engaging with the police might mean for themselves, their wider family and, in some cases, the perpetrator. However the key positive associated with police involvement is the potential for physical safety from a perpetrator. 
    • Children and young people found video recorded interviews and other formal investigative processes, including forensic medical examination, post reporting of abuse were difficult and distressing. The need for significant improvement is identified for both the practical and welfare elements of these processes.
    • Children and young people and their families found involvement in court processes to be a particularly distressing element of the criminal justice processes. Concerns particularly centred around the process of evidence giving and cross examination.
    • Children and young people’s family ties to perpetrators exacerbated many of the challenges associated with court. 
    • There is a need for greater consideration to be given to the support needs of victims and witnesses both during and after engagement in criminal justice processes. 
    • Barriers to children accessing pre-trial therapy need to be addressed.  Children report receiving inconsistent messages about their entitlement to support prior to court and may be blocked from receiving any therapeutic input at this time. 
    • ‘Justice’ remains an important concept for the majority of participants. 
  • Experiences of CSA in the family environment and the ensuing processes have a significant impact on how children feel about school. Schools were variably described as operating as both a place of escape and somewhere that could feel difficult to be.
  • Key difficulties that interviewees associated with school (or college) included:

    • feeling unable to concentrate or cope with the pressure of schoolwork;
    • anxiety about peers or staff finding out about the abuse; 
    • changes to peer dynamics; and managing symptoms of trauma during school time.
  • Some children and young people expressed anxiety and/or embarrassment about school staff knowing details of their abuse. The majority valued at least one member of staff recognising their additional needs and taking responsibility for implementing practical support strategies in consultation with children themselves. 
  • Children and young people  place significance on the positive contributions that friends could make to them after disclosures of CSA. There is an acknowledgement that friends and peer groups could also present additional difficulties and risks after disclosure including  gossip and bullying, facing difficult questions, changes to friendship dynamics and parental anxieties about their children associating with victims of CSA. 
  • Friends of primary and secondary age can play a role in keeping children physically safe by passing information on to adults, or supporting a child to do so themselves. 
  • Specific ways in which friends had formed part of the central support network following experiences of sexual abuse in the family environment, particularly for young women and adolescent friendships include demonstrations of insight, emotional support, mutual support and provision of distractions and humour. This support is often described as different from the supportive roles played by adults and suggests a distinct contribution that friends play.
  • A significant minority of children and young people valued opportunities to connect with peers who had similar experiences.
  • The majority of children and young people acknowledged potential ‘pathways’ beyond experiences of CSA in the family environment towards the possibility of positive change and growth. However these trajectories were accompanied by enduring challenges to children’s emotional wellbeing and were characterised as complex and dependent on significant professional support
  • Recognising evidence of positive change and growth after abuse is central to children and young people’s narratives of ‘recovery’. Professionals and family have a role in supporting children and young people to recognise these changes, no matter how small. 
  • Children and young people  attributed positive change to a range of experiences. These include:

    • being believed 
    • developing self-efficacy, self-confidence and self-worth 
    • recognising that others had comparable experiences 
    • space and support to express feelings 
    • support to manage symptoms of trauma and mental health difficulties
    • integrating difficult past experiences into their identity 
    • optimism for the future.
  • Analysis of the 53 interviews demonstrates that children’s hopes for the future focus on three recurring themes: 
    • an identity that isn’t dominated by victimhood 
    • support through change and the minimisation of disruption, and 
    • an entitlement to a safe multi-faceted life characterised not only by the absence of abuse but also the presence of diverse sources of fulfilment and safety. 
  • The children and young people interviewed for this research expressed a strong desire to communicate a sense of hope to other children facing similar circumstances and the importance of optimism in professional interventions.

Practice and policy implications

    • Improving professional curiosity and skills to effectively respond to signs of CSA: identification of CSA in the family environment continues to rely on children and young people’s verbal disclosures. Professionals and other adults in contact with children and young people should be supported to develop the knowledge and skills to recognise signs (including non-verbal, indirect or partial disclosures), ask appropriate questions and respond to enable children to access safety and support.
    • Creating contexts in which children feel encouraged and supported to tell: children identified the need for changes to make it easier for them to tell adults what has happened. Interviewees of all ages within this study engaged in highly complex decision-making processes when considering whether to tell someone about the abuse they experienced. Learning from these insights demonstrates a need to support children to:
      • recognise that abuse has taken place
      • have confidence they will be believed
      • know they will be supported following disclosure.
    • Supporting and responding to victims of CSA in the family environment should therefore always involve direct support to non-abusing family members and carers. The significance and benefits of such support must be recognised as threefold: 
      • addressing parents’ and carers’ own support needs
      • helping parents and carers to better understand and respond to their child’s needs
      • reducing the additional burden on children and young people for the responsibility they feel for their family’s wellbeing.
    • The option to access therapeutic support is critical for children and young people after sexual abuse in the family environment. Current availability of therapeutic support remains highly variable in terms of: availability; type; access criteria; length of interventions; and whether specialist (targeting victims of sexual abuse) or more generic (addressing mental health needs more broadly). Access to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) appears to be challenging and may not always respond to children’s need for specialist support. Inconsistency in the provision and availability of therapeutic support nationally must be addressed.
    • Children with physical disabilities and more profound learning or developmental disabilities appear to be particularly poorly represented among current users of services for specialist support after sexual abuse. Other groups that are under represented include boys and young men and children from black and minority ethnic communities.
    • Child-centred and needs-led statutory social work has a critical role to play in keeping children safe after sexual abuse in the family environment.
    • Existing provisions and guidance to support vulnerable victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system are not consistently implemented. Children and young people identified highly variable experiences of support throughout the criminal justice process, including variable application of special measures. 
    • Access to pre-trial therapeutic support appears to be highly inconsistent. It is imperative that access to therapeutic support prior to trial is available in line with current Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance, alongside wider concerted efforts to reduce delays and their impact. 
    • Children identified early education as a critical factor in supporting them to recognise abuse, talk about it and seek help. Given that many children are abused in the family environment from infancy, it is imperative that such input is designed to equip children of all ages with knowledge. 
    • Young people are more likely to disclose experiences of sexual abuse to peers than professionals and this appears to be particularly evident for girls and young women. Consideration must be given to how we equip children to deal with this sensitive and challenging information. 
    • Supporting schools to become spaces of safeguarding and emotional support alongside their role in prevention. 
    • One of the strongest messages to come from children and young people was a desire to access a sense of ‘normality’ in spite of dealing with experiences that were themselves far from normal. This means recognising children’s wider lives and needs, providing holistic support, connection (direct or otherwise) to others who have experienced sexual abuse in the family environment, and challenging stigma.

Read the full report

Warrington, C. et al (2017) Making noise: children’s voices for positive change after sexual abuse. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.

Watch the Making Noise animation

As part of the Making Noise project our Young People’s Advisory Group helped create an animation to show what it can be like for children and young people after sexual abuse. It covers their experiences from disclosure through giving evidence to receiving counselling and believing in themselves.

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