Interviewing Children and Young People for Research


Michelle O’Reilly & Nisha Dogra

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    About the Authors

    Dr Michelle O’Reilly is a Senior Lecturer for the Greenwood Institute of Child Health, at the University of Leicester, working for the School of Media, Communication and Sociology, and the School of Psychology. Michelle also provides research support to practising clinical professionals working for Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. Michelle’s research interests are broadly in the areas of child mental health, psychiatric research, family therapy and qualitative methods, and she has a particular research interest in Autism Spectrum Disorder, having recently edited a special section in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Michelle has recently edited two handbooks (with Jessica Lester) – The Palgrave Handbook of Child Mental Health and The Palgrave Handbook of Adult Mental Health. For more details please consult:

    Professor Nisha Dogra is Professor of Psychiatry Education and Honorary Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, at the Greenwood Institute of Child Health, University of Leicester. She is also Course Director for the Masters in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. She undertook some training in hospital and community paediatrics before training in psychiatry and then as an academic child psychiatrist. She currently works as a generic child and adolescent psychiatrist within a multi-disciplinary team (MDT). She has been involved in the development and delivery of a wide variety of teaching and training events in undergraduate and postgraduate education, locally, nationally and internationally. Professor Dogra worked on diversity in healthcare as part of her Commonwealth Fund Policy for Health Care Harkness Fellowship 2005–2006. She was a runner up for the Times Higher Education Innovative Teacher of the Year 2011. For more details please consult:


    We would like to offer our appreciation to several people who have helped to make this book happen. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions to develop areas within the book and all of their ideas. Of course we thank our families for their personal support during the process of writing, for their patience and understanding. Finally, we thank SAGE, for facilitating this book from inception to publication, particularly Jai Seaman and Alysha Owen.


    • AMA = American Medical Association
    • BSc = Bachelor of Science
    • CA = Conversation Analysis
    • CAMHS = Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services
    • DA = Discourse Analysis
    • DP = Discursive Psychology
    • DVD = Digital Versatile Disc
    • IPA = Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis
    • IQ = Intelligence Quotient
    • IRA = Irish Republican Army
    • NSPCC = National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
    • SRA = Social Research Association
    • UK = United Kingdom
    • UN = United Nations
    • UNCRC = United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child
    • USA = United States of America


    Interviewing is considered to be the most popular form of qualitative data collection and many researchers choose to use this to learn about people’s lives. Many, if not most, of the qualitative approaches argue that there is value in the interview for gaining an understanding of people’s opinions, experiences and feelings about particular phenomenon. Furthermore, some quantitative researchers use the interviewing method to gain structured information from participants. While not without criticism, the use of interviews in research is growing and is commonly taught on research methods programmes on undergraduate and postgraduate training courses, as well as on vocational training courses for practitioners in various areas of practice, including education, social care, health and medicine.

    This book is designed to take the reader through the whole process of undertaking a research project with children and/or young people using interviewing. The book is an accessible and practical guide for the reader and is designed to help students, practitioners, researchers and academic scholars in designing, planning, undertaking and analysing their interview study with children and young people. This is a timely text as there is a vast literature on interviewing as a technique for collecting data, and the literature on using this method of data collection with children and young people is expanding. However, while there are general textbooks to guide research with children and there are general textbooks on interviews, the focus on interviewing children and young people in one resource is up to now limited.


    In this book there are a range of terms used. Generally, we use the pronoun ‘we’ throughout the chapters to identify us as the authors of the book, and use ‘you’ to refer to the person reading the book. This book is about interviewing children and young people and we use a range of terms where appropriate to refer to this group. Generally, we use the term children to refer to populations who are under the age of 18 years old. We use the term young people to refer to those in their teenage years, and we use the term adolescents when being more technical. Throughout the book we refer to the parents and guardians of the children and generally use the term ‘parents’ throughout to encompass all adults who have legal responsibility for children including biological parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, local authorities, carers and other legal guardians.

    The Best Way To Use This Book

    While some readers may have experience of interviewing adults, we note that working with children requires different kinds of skills and this book is designed to help. Other readers may have practice-based experience of working with children but may be less confident in conducting research. Again this book is designed to help develop those skills and to consider the important issues in the decision making process. Throughout the text we use our combined clinical and academic experiences and knowledge to develop the book.

    We begin the book with chapters that provide context for interviewing children and young people. Early chapters focus on the value of the method of data collection and providing guidance for designing the study, while outlining different options that interviewers have to make in the process. This includes choices about the format of the interview and some of the practical decisions that need to be made in terms of the practical considerations. The book continues with some specific considerations such as the use of participatory methods, their value and their limitations, as well as considering the structure and form the interview might take. In doing interviews with children it is essential that the interviewer works within an ethical framework and the book provides useful and important information about how to do this. Additionally, there are particular factors related to the child and to the researcher that need some attention in the process and we devote attention to these in detail. The final sections of the book focus on the analysis methods and the process of reflexivity and reflection. Throughout the book we provide activities and vignette exercises to help you reflect and consolidate your learning. The answers are provided within chapters or at the end of the book.

    We recommend that you read through this book to develop a broad perspective on interviewing children and to engage with the suggested materials and recommended reading. This book may help you to identify areas for further training and we encourage you to develop your skills base using this book as a benchmark for doing so. It is common to have questions after reading a book, and this is a good thing as it promotes better quality research. Engage with your colleagues, supervisors and other scholarly materials to help you develop this further.

  • Answers To Vignettes

    Response to Box 1.4 vignette – Adam

    Adam is taking a fairly optimistic view of his study in the hope that the views of the children he engages might influence curriculum design. Adam takes a contemporary position that is informed by a rights-based framework through his aim to include children’s voices and listen to their views. His aim was to be informed by the children so that he could deliver a teaching programme that was based on child perspectives.

    Response to Box 3.4 vignette – Alicia

    There are several things Alicia needs to consider before making a decision. First, Alicia will need to identify what level of depth she wants to gain from the interviews. If she simply wants a checklist of key opinions, then a structured interview may be sufficient. However, if she wants a richer data set and to allow the young people to express themselves then one of the other types will be more appropriate.

    Alicia will need to consult the literature to ascertain how much is already known in this area, and to see whether other researchers have explored teenage victim’s viewpoints on criminal justice. If there is already some useful quantitative and qualitative research, then Alicia can use this to help her shape and develop a semi-structured interview schedule. However, if there is very little on the subject she may want to consider an unstructured one. Alicia will also want to think about how much control of the interview she wants to take in order to achieve her objectives. While semi-structured interviews are to some degree participant led and have flexibility, unstructured interviews give the participants more control. Alicia will need to consider her rationale for her choices carefully.

    Finally, Alicia may consider the naturally occurring interview. She may seek out media interviews where young people have been consulted on their opinions of the criminal justice system (although these may not exist or may not be easy to find). Alicia could record naturally occurring interviews with social workers or police and victims and see if their opinions of the criminal justice system occur naturally (but this is a risky strategy if the focus is narrow or the topic quite specific as it may not come up in a naturally occurring interview). Of course, Alicia’s theoretical position may influence her choice as some methodological and epistemological perspectives critique researcher-generated interviews due to their views of reality. However, the design of the research question is written in a way that lends itself to researcher-generated interviewing, which suggests that Alicia’s theoretical standpoint is congruent with that approach.

    Response to Box 4.4 vignette – Manjit
    Possible answers to question 1

    Although there are many challenges that Manjit faces by interviewing children in India, the key one would be access. If Manjit chooses to interview those children face-to-face then it will be necessary to travel to India and stay there during the process of data collection. This could prove to be expensive, and difficult if Manjit does not have a budget for this. However, computer-mediated interviewing, which negates the expense and time of travelling, is likely to be inappropriate, as those children who are living in poverty are very unlikely to have access to a computer, unlikely to be computer literate, and unlikely to have access to the internet.

    Possible answers to question 2

    We would first question whether it is appropriate to use computer interviewing techniques with children who live in poverty. These children, whether in the UK or India, are disadvantaged by their circumstances, and while those children in the UK may have some computer literacy through their education in schools, and may have access to a computer in the school environment, Manjit would then need to undertake the interview on school grounds, rather than at home, and this may make the children uncomfortable. Of course many ‘smart’ mobile (cell) phones have Instant Messenger capabilities, social networking and text messaging functions, so if Manjit had a budget she could provide the children with a complimentary phone for the interviews as a token of thanks. However, some of these are expensive, and ethics committees may see this as a form of coercion. An alternative would be for Manjit to provide the children with a ‘cheap’ tablet but this carries similar expense and ethical implications.

    An additional issue here is the sensitivity of the topic. There are contentions regarding what constitutes poverty, and this can be slightly different for the UK and India. The children themselves may not understand that they live in poverty and may become distressed during the interview and thus Manjit will need sensible safeguarding measures in place which computer-mediated interviewing may not allow.

    Response to Box 6.2 vignette – Karolina
    Possible answers to question 1

    Given the age group that Karolina is hoping to recruit, arts and crafts might be perceived by some of the adolescents as a little young for them. Although this is a vulnerable group, and a group that may have mental health difficulties or emotional problems, using a participatory method for the sake of it could make things difficult for Karolina. First, Karolina should not take for granted that a participatory method is needed. These are older children and many of them will have reasonable communication skills and be able to converse with her. Second, offering the young people the option of arts and crafts might be a way of allowing them to direct the interview and to opt out of engaging in the participatory tasks if they want to. The use of arts and crafts, if the young person likes the idea and shows willingness to engage, can provide a way of gradually introducing new topics into the conversation and to take the focus away from the immediate interview. This can help with the rapport building. The young person can talk about their drawings or craft creation and this can provide a platform for later topics.

    Possible answer to question 2

    Although we have noted that it may not be necessary for Karolina to use participatory methods, she may want to have a choice of them available if the interview starts going badly, or if the guardian (foster parent, care home manager) has identified the young person as particularly withdrawn or quiet. It would be useful for Karolina to consult with as many of the people who know the young person well to get ideas regarding how to best engage them in an interview. Also she needs to remember not to treat each young person the same and different participatory methods might be needed for different young people.

    One useful participatory technique for adolescents and for those who might be reluctant to talk is to use ‘third party’ techniques such as vignettes or clips from YouTube or other social media sources. By telling a story about someone else with similar experiences, the young person can relate to that third party and start talking about themselves. For example, video vignettes with actors can be created whereby the actor is given a name and behaves in a particular way that Karolina knows may resonate with the young person she is interviewing. The actor may get angry, or may cry a lot, or may sit quietly in a corner while others around him/her are talking. This depiction of a particular scene in a video can form a basis for questions about the participant’s experiences and may feel safer for the young person.

    Response to Box 8.1 vignette – Mia

    Even before reading the rest of the chapter we hope it is obvious that Mia needs to do more than simply ask the children if they are happy to participate. The children she is planning to recruit are potentially vulnerable because of their socio-economic status. Furthermore, these children are under the age of 16 years old which means that Mia will need to get the consent of their parents too. Furthermore, some of the questions Mia will be asking relate to what is considered to be an area which may cause the children some distress and therefore it will be necessary for Mia to take steps to prevent this but also to address it if it arises. As Mia is planning to interview children who are all from one geographic location there need to be steps taken to protect the identity of these children from one another, and from other people in the community. They may express some views which cast the local community in a negative way and it is important that their views cannot be traced back to them. There are of course other ethical considerations you may have thought of and reading through the chapter should help you to see the relevance of these.

    Response to Box 8.4 vignette – Pierre

    Safeguarding is always a very tricky issue and Pierre has very little evidence that the child is actually hurting themselves. If he reveals too much information to other people, he will be breaking the child’s confidentiality which was promised at the start of the study. However, Pierre should have outlined in a simple way the limits to confidentiality and this should have included the clause that if he was to find that the child was being hurt by someone or they were hurting themselves he may have to disclose it. The real difficulty here for Pierre is that the child hinted at hurting themselves, but did not disclose very much information. Self-harm is also a common behaviour in young people and a maladaptive coping strategy employed by many young people. Self-harm in itself may not indicate mental health concerns or be risky but it is the nature and context that would indicate reasons to be concerned. Often adults want children to stop self-harm more than children might want to. As the interviews are about managing stress it might be reasonable to predict that self-harm as a theme might arise. A way of supporting the child without pushing them may be to say at the end, ‘You mentioned self-harm and I understand you do not want to discuss it further with me. However, should you find you wish to do so you may find it useful to contact the school nurse or your GP.’ This demonstrates that you have heard the child, are respecting their wishes but also addressing possible concerns. As Pierre is a BSc student in a psychology department within a university his most appropriate course of action is to discuss this with his supervisor without actually naming the child. The supervisor can then check the university’s guidelines and consult with their colleagues to make a decision on this.

    Response to Box 9.4 vignette – Cameron

    It is clear that the female participant Cameron is interviewing is becoming hostile toward him and she has lost her focus on the interview. She is displaying non-verbal signs, such as folding her arms and pacing the room. Cameron should have talked to the probation officer or social worker and her parents prior to interviewing her as there may be important things he needed to know (for example, she may have a drug addiction which is causing some of the physical symptoms she is displaying or she may have a history of violent behaviour). Furthermore, for his own safety and for that of his participants, Cameron should have done a basic risk assessment. Nonetheless, in the here-and-now of the interview, Cameron should suggest a break to give the participant the opportunity to rest, stop, or withdraw all together. Cameron should have chosen a location where there were other adults around, such as at the institutional setting or in the home where parents were in another room (again this is not always possible, but is advisable). Either way, Cameron should start to close the interview, stop the recording and, if she is willing, set up a follow-on interview at a later date.


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