Being Seen and Heard – is not just a reversal of the Victorian mantra about how children should be treated, as it raises some key questions about children’s experience which are often glossed over: What is there to be seen about a child ? Obviously the answer is that there are many things but the challenge is how to elicit and engage with them. Similarly ‘ we need to hear the voice of the child’ is an often expressed sentiment, but leaves open the question of what do adults need to do, and how, in order to hear what children think.

The romanticisation of children at the end of the Victorian era was always contradictory: They were portrayed on the one hand as beautiful and innocent ( almost without minds or feelings – and if they did feel or express pain or distress from sadness, loss or punishment it wouldn’t matter because they would ‘forget it’), whilst at the same time they were treated almost as mini adults, kind of just waiting to be ‘inflated’. The early 20th century psychologists – Piaget and Anna Freud did begin to promote the idea that children had feelings and that their minds developed through different stages.

But in many countries – particularly but not only the UK – there has remained a coyness and ambiguity about whether and what children can think. In the UK emotional deprivation became part of the educational system; both in the private ‘public schools’ where emotion was meant to be taboo, as well as in the local schools where emotional deprivation – ‘face the wall’ – were commonly used as regular opportunities for punishment. In fact this idea that they are just vessels whose minds are waiting to be filled is also part of the thinking behind the advertising on the media of ‘must have‘ toys and junk food which many children are subjected to, a practice which leads to public outrage but no action. 

 Similar thinking has now by default infected public policy about children, particularly in the UK, where the focus of social care has virtually been reduced to protection from severe abuse, with little thought about how to effectively canvas children and young people about what they need. At the same time it is fascinating to watch how, in both primary and secondary schools, when children are given responsibility to think and manage relationships and the intellectual tools to use it, they can often achieve goals which may have frustrated their adult carers. Examples have been the Buddy systems and Peer counselling in schools ( particularly primary schools). Although these have not received the public support and resources to make them maximally effective in the UK, some children have been able to respond to their peers trained in this method in ways they had not so far been able to with adults. Another example is the remarkable authority developed by the young people’s champions appointed by some local governments.

So the problem may not be to ‘hear the voices of children’ so much as the nature of the adult voice which can allow children to express their thinking in meaningful ways. As parents we are all to some degree hampered by the fact that we have to control and or at times get children to do things they may not want to. So however much we try to encourage independent thought our children’s loyalty and attachment to us will often lead them to hear ‘don’t think differently from me’ or at the extreme end ‘if you don’t agree with me you don’t love me’. So how do we listen to what children really think and feel ? In my experience it is rarely achieved by asking so called ‘open’ questions to a child about ‘How do you feel/think about this or that’ because both at home and at school children are so often trying to work out what adults want from them – ie what’s the right answer. Also anyone who has watched someone being quizzed by a TV journalist after a traumatic event knows that the inappropriate questions like ‘How did it feel’ have no meaningful answer.

Professionals in the social care and health fields are expected to ask children about their ‘wishes and feelings’, which assumes that what a child will answer to one professional will be the same as what he or she will say to another. So, take a common question some children or adults are asked sometimes: ‘How can I help you ?’ Unless you have a menu of possible ‘helps’ in your head it is impossible to answer. It can be difficult enough for adults to guess what is on offer, but for children it will doubly difficult because how they understand an offer, and the wishes they can express, will be much more dependant on the relationship in which the offer is made.

Different people who believe they are offering the same thing may be seen by many children as each offering something different. So a helpful conversation with a child needs to make clear who the adult is, what is his/her role, and particularly what are the boundaries of the discussion and what is on offer. Children have no reason to assume that any particular adult – professional or other – is to be trusted, so any trust the child can place in the conversation has to be earned rather than assumed. In my experience, because they have so often assumed that adults want them to ‘agree’, many children will feel safer if they are offered a range of possible answers so they can choose one or reject all and then sometimes risk offering their own. So if I ask a child ‘Is it easier to talk to a teacher, a social worker, or people your own age’ it may be easier for that child to answer than if I just ask ‘Do you like your social worker’, as it begins to release the child from trying to find out what the adult wants

Another and perhaps critical factor is the adult’s tone. What kind of tone suggests to a child that an adult is ‘on the level’, and not trying to trick or catch the child out. This is perhaps the most confusing aspect, because some parents and other adults find they can intuitively talk to children as ‘equals’ – not equals in terms of development and knowledge or power and responsibility, but equals in terms of rights, in terms of respect for each other’s mind and the capacity to think. In these situations, if the adult is known to the child already, the child is likely to trust that he can engage in thinking with the adult without having to always try to fit in with what he thinks the adult is after. A relatively unknown adult, on the other hand, has to find a way to overcome and challenge the child’s assumption that the adult wants him or her to comply and give the ‘right’ answer.

Obviously we need to be honest and up-front with children, and mean it. That is not always easy, because nearly all children have had promises made which were broken or forgotten. So discovering that an adult means what he or she says will take time – not necessarily ages, but the child must have time to make their own assessment. Some children are pretty good at making those assessments, and some well-meaning adults may feel quite uncomfortable as they are scrutinised. However for less confident children it is the adult’s responsibility to make it clear to the child that you know you are ‘unknown’, and that although ‘ we will start to talk about the things that might be worrying you… you will have to see if you can feel comfortable talking to me…and if there is something I can do to make it easier it will be good if you can tell me’. One of the commonest traps for many adults is if a child confides something upsetting the adult may feel emotionally pressured to promise to keep it a secret, when in fact it is not their right or responsibility to do so. So it is important to be clear that while a conversation can be private, if there is something that is serious that a parent or other carer should know, you will tell them. So are there other ways to convey to a child that you do not want the child to try to agree with you in a conversation ?

Personally I have found – and written about a number of times – that if one can find any area of life that interests both you and the child, or even better one about which the child may know more than you, that can sometimes be a way into a playful conversation in which some trust can be built. You have to ask and sometimes guess what might interest this particular child, but talking about each others life first usually reveals something. So in one case it led to a 7 year old girl expressing outrage about people killing animals; ‘They should all be put in prison’. I replied that ‘That is the law if a person kills another person, so do you think it should be the same for animals ?’ ‘Of course !’ she replied. I said ‘But can we really have the same rules for people as for animals’. She was becoming aroused and answered ‘Why not ! they are all alive’. I replied ‘ well we could agree that animals should not be killed, which is what Vegans believe – Have you heard of them ? (she nods)….but could we put in prison all the animals that kill other animals’. This led us off into a lively and eventually more playful debate which then established an area of trust– albeit a small one – which could allow us to discuss the difficult business of what was happening to her family. Often engaging in a kind of debate or dialectic about some aspect of shared interest can be one way to show the child that you can both have different points of view.

The truth is that many children do not, and will not, experience adults as valuing their minds as independent thinkers – and they still survive and many overcome the difficulty. Children are remarkably adaptable, if sometimes at more emotional cost than they can afford. To not have one’s mind recognised and respected can however become intolerable and damaging when there are serious issues in the family that a child is having to grapple with at the same time; family violence or ongoing intense conflict, serious illness or death, parents using drugs and alcohol, and particularly mental illness in a parent. In these situations where the child is suddenly or continually propelled into an adult role in relation to the parents, it can be quite intolerable for the child’s mind to be ignored, devalued, or invalidated – particularly if it is by both parents and professionals. Having to accept being seen as a ‘mindless child’ at the same time as having to watch, monitor, and care for a parent or siblings can be intolerable and make the child both depressed and see him or herself as valueless.

So what is this blog about then ? It is a plea to listen to children by engaging in a real way with what they think, to take seriously their ideas and observations and to bring into public discussion with them the things they are having to grapple with – especially the most taboo and hidden ones such as mental illness in a parent. This is what our charity ‘Our Time’ (formerly The Kidstime Foundation) is committed to.


  • Alan Cooklin FRCPsych

    Psychiatrist, campaigner for the children whose parents have mental illness, Founder of Our Time

    Consultant family psychiatrist, Founder and Academic Lead of Our Time as well as a private family psychiatrist. Developed and was Director of the Marlborough Family Service 1975-1995. Paediatric Liaison lead for UCLH and Consultant to the Camden and Islington Family Project for Major mental Illness, where I developed developed the ‘KidsTime’ workshops for families in which a parent suffers from mental illness. Retired from the NHS in 2015. Founding Chair of the Association for Family Therapy, founding Director and then Chair of the Institute of Family Therapy. Worked with families for some 45 years. Set up three University courses, and has taught throughout Europe, North and South America, Australasia, India, Singapore, and China. Regular expert witness in the District and High Courts in relation to Child Protection until 2015 Set up Kidstime Foundation in 2012 which became Our Time in 2018.