Sand, maps and calm boxes: tools for listening to children’s experiences after sexual abuse

makingnoise04-transparentMegan Walker is a therapeutic practitioner who has been seconded for a year from her post at the NSPCC Letting The Future In service to work on the project Making Noise; Children’s Voices for Positive Change after Sexual Abuse. Her role has been to elicit the views of children and young people affected by sexual abuse to improve understanding about what helps and how current processes and services can be improved. In this blog post she reflects on the process of designing the interview toolkit and some of the messages coming out of the research.

Developing the interview toolkit

One of the key tasks at the start of this project was to design an interview toolkit that could be used with children and young people from ages five to 18. The big age range and variety of learning styles and communications needs meant that it was important to ensure the toolkit was adaptable and transferable.

Project Lead, Camille Warrington, was open to exploring options and piloting the use of different mediums as potential tools of communication within the interviews. I found piloting the interviews with members of the project’s Youth Advisory Group and Tim Woodhouse (Director Tiptoes CTS) to be a valuable learning experience, even if it did involve some role play! This process helped to highlight where to make changes in order for the interview to flow smoothly and how information could be conveyed in different formats depending on the age and needs of the interviewee. For example, one pilot interview highlighted how important it was to let the child talk about their personal experience as well as providing reassurances that they didn’t have to.

It was useful to be able to draw on the team’s experience of what has worked in previous research with young people. For example, visual mapping was an insightful and empowering tool which enabled us to effectively guide a conversation led by the child’s experience. It also empowered the child to experience a sense of choice and control over what they talked about in the interview.

The picture below is an example of a section of mapping completed by a six  year old participant. It highlighted how bullying was a significant issue in the context of her experience. At the far left is an illustration of the child feeling happy as she draws a picture of stars and love hearts. The middle illustration highlights sad feelings as a result of her sexual abuse and the bullying that ensued post disclosure (far right is her illustration of boys sticking out their tongues and bullying her).

Drawing, MN

Given that sexual abuse in the family environment was the focus of the research we knew it was likely many of the participants could have some degree of trauma associated with their experiences. The ethical inclusion criteria to participate in the research stipulated that all participants must be in receipt of, or have access to, a specialist support service; however we were mindful that participants may still be processing their experience of sexual abuse. This was significant when thinking about methods because the presence of trauma affects the thinking part of the brain that controls language and memory. Therefore it was possible that our intended participant group may have a reduced capacity to express themselves on the subject of sexual abuse through the spoken word alone.

Aside from the presence of trauma we recognised that, developmentally, children as a participant group can present with a lower capacity to express themselves verbally then adults, particularly when it comes to putting the emotional intensity of their experiences into words. Our hope was to include children as young as five years old in the research. Therefore we understood our approach needed to be flexible enough to reflect this difference in order to promote the safe and meaningful participation of children.

Examples from the toolkit

We anticipated that children may experience varying degrees of anxiety about the interview and we could expect to see various behavioural responses to this according to individual coping strategies and age/stage of development. Furthermore the child’s ability to regulate their emotions could well have been compromised by trauma.

Calm boxes

To respond to this need, I had fun making “calm boxes” containing objects to stimulate the senses and breathing pattern in ways which support a child who presents in a hyper or hypo state of emotional arousal. The calm box was designed to help children stay emotionally present throughout the interview and to help individuals leave the interview in an emotionally regulated state.

Calm box, MN


Inviting children to set up a sand world which corresponds to their inner emotional state related to specific aspects of their experience is a helpful way of eliciting feelings and perspectives which children might find difficult to express using words alone. It is an ideal medium to use alongside discussion because it helps the child to communicate the subject matter in a three dimensional form.

The pictures below illustrate a sand tray completed by a six year old child who told the following story using the sand and figures. It started off as a sunny day. The child and her family drove all around before stopping the car to have a picnic. For a time during this child’s sand play everything felt safe and happy.

Sand1, MN

But then the child described how “suddenly it just got worse”. The picture below illustrates how a “huge tiger ran in from another world” along with other powerful characters and everybody started to fight. The characters shouted at each other “I’m going to kill you”. Then the child described how a huge snake “powered in” and buried himself so no one would even know he was there.

Sand2, MN

Just as suddenly as they all arrived, the characters left the sand tray leaving the child and her father figure face down in the sand.

I got the distinct impression from this sand tray that the child’s world was suddenly turned upside down as fighting and chaos prevailed within it. As I listened to the child and witnessed her sand world I observed there was really something quite unexpected and sudden about the whole event. The child described it as a “war thing” and used language like “so wired” to describe how these figures came into the world and then suddenly disappeared again. I felt it was a stark comparison to the happy beginning. It left me with a level of insight into this child’s experience which would not have been achieved through the power of words alone with such a young child.

My role as an interviewer

I saw my role as an interviewer as creating and holding a safe space for children to share their views and perspectives. My primary task was to actively listen to children as the experts of their journey and experiences throughout disclosure or discovery of their abuse to the current day. I sought to gain an understanding of children’s perceptions of their reality. This required me to put aside my assumptions and preconceived ideas about young people’s experiences. I found that in doing this I was able to learn a lot and expand my own understanding of what helps. For example I had always viewed waiting lists as undesirable; however one young person challenged my thinking about this when she explained how the waiting list to access a specialist support service reduced her sense of isolation by conveying to her the message that she wasn’t alone in her experience. Furthermore this young person felt reassured by the waiting list because she interpreted this to mean it was a good service. Had I held my assumption I may not have heard her voice on this matter.


I have been hugely inspired by young people’s courage and willingness to help bring positive change for other young people who experience sexual abuse in the family environment. Each young person has a very significant story to tell and some powerful messages about what helps.

Children report positively about their involvement in the research. It has also been recognised by some project workers who have supported young people’s participation, that there is therapeutic value in children having the opportunity to reflect on their journey; for many the interview was an opportunity to reflect on just how far they have come.

My experience of working in partnership with the International Centre: researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking at the University of Bedfordshire, has been hugely positive. I found the whole team to be very welcoming and supportive from the outset and will miss the relationship when the project comes to an end. It has been a pleasure to work within a project which is committed to taking such a person and child centred approach to researching a subject as sensitive as sexual abuse in the family environment.


We invited each participant to decorate a circle symbolising their involvement in the Making Noise project. I am looking forward to see how our Youth Advisory Group is going to bring all the circles together to create a single image at the end of the project. The idea is to visually represent the contribution that each individual has made to the whole.
circle1, MN     circle 2, MN
circles 3, MN

The Making Noise Project is funded by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England as part of the Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse within the Family Environment.