Child abuse: The ‘art’ of listening

Written by: Sam Preston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It takes on average seven years for children to disclose sexual abuse and teachers are on the frontline. Safeguarding expert Sam Preston asks if your staff really know how to ‘listen’ to their pupils

Child abuse: a distressing topic that’s never easy to talk about, even as teaching professionals tasked with its identification and intervention. However, for the children who are victims of abuse, trusting and telling an adult can be one of the hardest things they’ll ever do.

Over the years, it has become assumed that children who experience abuse, don’t talk about it. However, recent research shows us that children do disclose. The big question we must ask ourselves as practitioners is: are we accurately listening?

Research from the NSPCC estimates that it takes seven years on average for children and young people to disclose sexual abuse, so how can we ensure that we do not miss opportunities for intervention? To do this, we need to pay attention not only to what the child says, but also to what is not said.

So, how do you encourage your pupils to speak up while reading the signs for those that have not found their voice just yet? There are a range of practical strategies and techniques which can be adopted to support and encourage children to express their views.

Non-verbal cues

Not every pupil will feel capable of speaking directly about the abuse they’re experiencing, so it is important to be aware of non-verbal cues indicating risk to instigate and facilitate a conversation with them. You might notice:

  • Behavioural: Changes in eating habits, shrinking away from or seeming threatened by physical contact (e.g. during PE, music lessons, drama classes), age-inappropriate sexual behaviours, sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure. Sexually abused children also may act out their abuse using dolls, talking with or demonstrating to other children about sexual/abusive acts. This February, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence advised school staff to “build up a gradual picture” of what is going on in a child’s life to cause their sudden change of behaviour. This includes being wary of potential abuse if children are very clingy or have temper tantrums (Safeguarding: What are the early signs of abuse or neglect, Headteacher Update, May 2017:
  • Physical: Cuts and bruises (especially those presenting as defensive wounds), unrealistic description of events to explain injuries, signs of bloody or stained underclothing or bruised or bleeding external genitalia when helping a child use the bathroom. A child might also complain that it hurts to walk or sit or be experiencing pain or itching in the genital area.
  • Verbal: Reporting nightmares or bed-wetting, using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age, unexplained silence, withdrawal, or suddenly being less talkative in class.

Primary school teachers should consider devising ways to support and encourage children to express their views, using methods such as games, activity-based work, play and creative arts. These types of activities help children feel more comfortable and able to express and process their feelings. These activities can also help to build a positive and trusting relationship between a child and their teacher.

Starting the conversation

How you start the conversation will depend on how old your pupil is, however, here are some basic strategies you can employ to help open and facilitate conversation. Remember this is a conversation not an investigation:

  • Find regular time to speak alone with the pupil: building trust will of course take time, however, it is important that the pupil has one-to-one time with you to enable them to talk openly without fear of judgement.
  • Talk in age-appropriate language: teachers should ask questions that reflect the child’s own vocabulary, for example using, reflecting and clarifying their terminology for body parts – “when you say he touched your foo foo can you point to where that is on your body?”. This enables you to open conversation and gain the different contexts in which the child is touched, e.g. in suitable situations such as in the bath being washed, or in a more sinister context by a relative or family friend. It is best to avoid the term “hurt”, as it can feel good to a child and they won’t make the connection between the abuse and pain. Avoid teaching the child about sexual activity during this process – you must not put words into their mouths. Some abusers have the child touch the adult, so also consider this.
  • Read stories: there are an array of specialist books your school can purchase to help teachers talk about serious subjects such as abuse. Banded by age group, they make a great starting point for teachers to broach the subject with a pupil and ask some gentle questions about their understanding of the story and what happened to the character.
  • Drawing: asking a pupil to draw or demonstrate what has happened to them might be easier for them than verbal communication. This is especially good to help draw out three to five-year-olds who will have limited vocabulary. You can download resources that pupils can colour in with you, for example, a picture of a house whereby you can ask the child to colour in their “safe places” to start discussion.
  • Role play: for slightly older pupils (six to 11), role play such as dolls and doll houses can be used as well as drawing to help them demonstrate what has happened to them. While requiring specialist training, some schools work with anatomically correct dolls complete with genitalia, breasts, fingers and tongues, to help in the case of suspected sexual abuse.
  • Be patient: for a young child, you must have realistic expectations and an understanding that the discussion might not go as planned – it’s important to give it time. Talking about abuse can be a scary process for a child of any age, and fear that they will not be believed, guilt or that they will get into trouble with their abuser will feel extremely real to them. Several short sessions incorporating different activities and discussion is better than one long session.

Become an ‘active listener’

Active listening is vital in opening communication with children about abuse; it lets your pupil know you are interested in what he/she has to say and want to hear more. As an active listener, you are giving your full attention to a child – make eye contact, stop other things you are doing, and make sure you are talking to the child at the same level. You reflect or repeat back what they are saying and what they may be feeling to make sure you understand.

What to do if a pupil does disclose abuse to you

  • Be an empathetic listener: thank the pupil for sharing information throughout and remind your pupil that it is not their fault. Empathy is a key attribute of active listening and will help build trust between you and your pupils.
  • Honour their boundaries: if you feel they need to be consoled by touch ask for permission before any touch takes place. It is important that they feel in control of their body at all times.
  • If you plan to intervene and report the issue, let your pupil know. Otherwise they may feel like you’re going behind their back and they should never have told you in the first place. Establish the boundaries of confidentiality from the start. If a student says they want to speak to you but don’t want you to tell anyone you must make it clear that information may be shared. A good way of achieving this is to positively reinforce first: e.g. “I’m really glad you felt able to approach/speak to me and I am here to listen/help. I want you to know that if I think you are at risk I will share information”.
  • And remember: don’t panic – feel honoured that this child has trusted you enough to tell you about what has happened to them. You have the power to make a positive difference in this child’s life.

Children who are reluctant to talk

First and foremost, remember that disclosure of abuse is a process – not an event. It is extremely important that you have been given training to understand why a child is reluctant to talk to you. Most victims will have developed their own coping strategies to deal with abuse, and in many cases, this means burying the experience and making the decision never to talk to anyone about it. This could be down to pressure from the abuser if the abuse if still occurring, feelings of guilt or fear in the child that they will not be believed or will get into trouble if they do tell. Do not put pressure on them or shift the discussion to sensitive issues before they seem comfortable. Denial is a very large factor of the disclosure process and so it is vital that you’re patient and empathetic.

Reassurance that they are doing the right thing by talking to you is key. Using an opening line such as “my job is to talk and listen to people, you are not in any trouble with me today. This is a safe room” is a good opener.

Respond with care and urgency

Remember: if you suspect abuse, you are legally required to report it, irrespective of whether a pupil has confided the details. The world of legislative protection for children is continuously evolving in line with case learnings and outcomes.

For example, the Department for Education has released updates to its Working Together to Safeguard Children (September 2016) statutory guidance and its document Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and guide for practitioners (February 2017) which affects the child sexual exploitation legal requirements placed upon schools. It is essential that any frontline professional trained before these dates, understand the latest requirements they are required to embed in everyday safeguarding practice.

And finally, seek support for yourself

Be kind to yourself – child abuse is devastating and you will need support through the process too. Your designated safeguarding lead can refer you to a counsellor and agree a support plan as you walk the path with your pupil.

Further information

Safeguarding guidance and policy documents from the DfE, including Working Together to Safeguard Children and What to do if You’re Worried a Child is Being Abused (all March 2015):

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