Involving children and young people on research about domestic abuse

Image: An arrangement of wooden figures representing children and adults, some coloured.

Children and young people have the right to be involved in decisions that affect them. This is a basic human right, underlined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It is thus morally the right thing to do. But, further, we also have ever increasing evidence that it leads to better decision-making and better outcomes for children and young people, whether that is in family law when contact between parents and children are contested (Kay-Flowers 2019; see Improving Justice in Child Contact project) or in designing policy on domestic abuse (Houghton 2018).

We want to take children and young people’s involvement seriously in CAFADA. As the recent blog by John Devaney raised, we need to engage with children and young people about how to understand and measure the impacts of domestic abuse. We need to involve them as research participants. If innovations are supposed to improve their experiences of services and have better outcomes for children, young people and their families, these are research questions that need children and young people to help provide the answers. But we also should go further, to learn with and from children and young people about how best to undertake the research and how best to disseminate the results.

There is accumulating experience about how to involve children and young people in research, in these and other ways. There is no shortage of participative methodologies, which engage children and young people so that their views, ideas and experiences are communicated powerfully and effectively. We are learning how to do this digitally, as well as in person, accelerated by COVID-19 and physical distancing. There is increasing recognition of children and young people as having expertise, well able to advise, co-design or lead research. (For recent reviews, see Spyrou 2018, Cuevas-Parra and Tisdall 2019 and, from children and young people’s perspectives, see Triumph, Yello! blog and Young Edinburgh Action).

There also remain very familiar challenges. Particularly when adults are concerned about children and young people’s vulnerability, such as in contexts of domestic abuse, perceptions of what are a child’s best interests trump or squeeze out the child’s participation rights (Morrison et al. 2020; Yello!). Yet, the UNCRC is very clear. Children’s best interests and children’s participation rights work together and it is in children’s best interests for their participation rights to be recognised, supported and facilitated. This does need to be done carefully, with due ethical and safeguarding concerns, learning with children and young people what truly ensures that all their rights are met. This has been especially needed as we adapt to COVID-19 and associated policies, where we increasingly are using digital communication means that can include – but also exclude – children and young people.

Under a human rights framework, participation is not just for participation’s sake: children and young people’s involvement is supposed to make a difference to decision-making. That seems to be one of the hardest for our adult-based institutions, ways of working, and sometimes adults’ perceptions of and attitudes towards children and young people (McMellon and Tisdall 2020). This is particularly so for traditional academic research, which can hold tightly to its hierarchical control of knowledge and research skills. So the CAFADA project will need to take this very seriously, so those of us who are adults question ourselves about control over producing knowledge. We need to ensure we are ready and willing to engage with children and young people’s contributions, not only as research participants but also as expert advisers to the research project. A challenge for us over the next years – but a welcome one that will involve us learning together as well leading to CAFADA’s goal of improved interventions and outcomes.  

Kay Tisdall, Co-Investigator on CAFADA and member of the Childhood & Youth Studies Research Group, MHSES University of Edinburgh.


Cuevas-Parra, P. and Tisdall, E.K.M. (2019a) ‘Child-Led Research’ , Social Sciences 8(2): 44.

Houghton, C. (2018) ‘Voice, Agency, Power’, in S. Holt, C. Øverlien and J. Devaney (eds), Responding to Domestic Violence, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp. 77-96.

Kay-Flowers, S. (2019) Childhood Experiences of Separation and Divorce: Reflections from Young Adults, Bristol: Policy Press.

McMellon, C. and Tisdall, E.K.M. (2020) ‘Children and Young People’s Participation Rights: Looking backwards and moving forwards’, International Journal of Children’s Rights 28: 157-182.

Morrison, F., Tisdall, E.K.M., and Callaghan, J.E.M. (2020) ‘Manipulation and Domestic Abuse in Child Contact – Threats to Children’s Participation Rights’, Family Court Review 58(2): 403-416.

Spyrou, S. (2018) Disclosing Childhoods: Research and Knowledge Production for a Critical Childhood Studies, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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