Who do children tell?
When children decide to talk about child sexual abuse, they most commonly turn to family or friends before reporting to professionals (Allnock and Miller, 2013). Younger children are more likely to confide in a parent or family member, while adolescents are more likely to confide in a friend or peer (Lahtinen et al, 2018; Ungar et al, 2009); friends play a significant role in recognising when their peers are struggling (Allnock, 2015) and in listening to them talk about sexual abuse (Bottoms et al, 2016; Priebe and Svedin, 2008) (Talking to peers and friends).
Children say they are trying to communicate about their abuse when they show signs or act in ways that they hope adults will notice and react to. They want to be noticed by friendly, approachable and caring professionals, with whom they have built a trusting and trusted relationship. They want to be asked how they are doing and told you are listening, so they have an opportunity to have an open dialogue. It is important to keep in mind that any child could be attempting to communicate with us, but certain children may face additional barriers because of their age, disability, gender, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation (hyperlink to below section)
Teachers are the professionals to whom children will most commonly talk (NSPCC, 2013), but the process can be helped or hindered by the way in which any of us as professionals engage with a child about whom there are concerns. The way in which you respond to children generally and throughout this process, from the very first signals they may give out (such as changes in mood or behaviour) through to their active attempts to tell us their concerns, will determine whether they feel you care about them, will listen to them and can be trusted . The information below outlines what children have said they want from particular professionals to help them talk to professionals:
Universal services – education and health
Children want teachers to notice signs such as self-harm; eating disorders; acting out in class; school attendance; and being alone and withdrawn at school (Alaggia, 2004; Alaggia, 2010; Allnock and Miller, 2013).
Children may require significant periods of time to build the trusted relationship in which they feel comfortable talking about sexual abuse (Ahern et al, 2017b; Lefevre et al, 2017), particularly if they have had previous negative experiences of interacting with authority figures (Ahern et al, 2017b).
It is extremely unlikely that a child will first tell a police officer about sexual abuse for a number of reasons: because children may not believe the abuse is a crime; they do not always believe the police will keep them safe; they may feel they will not be believed; or they may be afraid of being blamed, getting in trouble or getting the perpetrator in trouble (Allnock, 2018; Beckett et al, 2013; Beckett and Warrington, 2014; Beckett and Warrington, 2015).
Regardless of how or why police come into contact with children, the initial contact is central in building a child’s confidence to talk about their experiences (Beckett and Warrington, 2015).
Children want police to act with sensitivity and respect, not judge them, positively engage them in making decisions, and keep them informed (Allnock and Miller, 2013; Beckett and Warrington, 2015).
Some research indicates that children (Key Messages from Research, CSA Centre) are unlikely to talk to social workers because they may fear what will happen when social workers become involved and worry that social workers will judge them. Children want social workers to show an active interest in them, even when visiting for other reasons; to understand the nature of their problems and behaviours; to be impartial when assessing the home environment; to talk to them separately from other family members; and to ask the right questions, which will help provide a pathway for them to talk about sexual abuse (Gilligan, 2016; Horvath et al, 2014; Morrison, 2016)