Four themes were identified: (a) having fun, (b) agency and choice in service and school contexts, (c) negotiating intersecting identities, and (d) relational recoveries. In our analysis, we make reference to a ‘Top Tips’ poster, created by the children, who were keen for us to share their ideas. The poster is property of the DV agency and therefore potentially risks revealing the location and identities of participants. Therefore, to protect the anonymity of participants we have presented the list the children made in a table (Table 3).
Fun is not a narrative resource assumed to be available to children who have experienced DV due to widespread assertions in academic and practice discourse that children who experience DV have greater challenges in peer relationships and are more likely to experience mental health difficulties (Radford et al. 2013). This produces the assumption that it is unlikely ‘fun’ is something these children can, and will, experience. Contrary to this, children told numerous small stories of ‘fun’. It was one of the most frequently discussed concepts introduced by all the children. Often, when asked about the programme activities, children did not describe the particular activity in detail, rather, they spoke about the experiential aspect of being in the group which they described as ‘fun’.
Liam stated ‘it were very fun’ and Jo felt the most important thing was everybody ‘got to share ideas together’, emphasising that she experienced this sense of being together, as fun and freeing. Within the theme of ‘fun’, participants told multiple small stories of relationships with each other (for instance, jokes they would tell, or the value of doing activities together rather than on their own). All participants spoke about the relationships formed in the group. For Jo, it was simply ‘doing it [the group]’ and doing it ‘together’ that was meaningful. It was not what they did, but how they did it that mattered most to her. Likewise, Sophie suggested that having fun was like a day without the ‘blah blah’:
Interviewer: so what was it like to be able to make such a special friend in the group?
Sophie: it was like a day without the blah blah
Interviewer: a day without the blah blah?
Sophie: yeah, I could forget about it all and just have fun.
Like Jo, Sophie drew on the concept of having ‘fun’, in order to articulate what making a new friend in the group, was like. Additionally, Sophie’s use of the term ‘blah blah’ might seem relatively ‘child-like’. This articulation of ‘fun’ could be understood as a negotiation and expectation of the interviewer’s position as an adult who, based on the socio-political space of the school, she might have expected to be disinterested in what she had to say. However, when she was asked if she could explain what she meant, she said: ‘It’s all the talking [in school] – no you shouldn’t do this, yes you should do that, no you can’t…’. Sophie re-negotiated her position as an active agent through the relational space of the interview. Firstly, this enabled her to articulate her sense of the constraining rules and boundaries of school and to describe the importance of a space which enabled fun. Secondly, this interaction with Sophie also points towards a relational negotiation with the interviewer. It could be said that the relational space enabled her to (re)negotiate her position as ‘child’ and articulate what she intended to communicate.
We view the telling of these small stories as a context-specific and relational (re)negotiation of discourses which propose children affected by DV may not be able to have fun in a meaningful way. It could be assumed the social and academic discourse of vulnerability of children exposed to DV means these types of programmes ‘should’ be filled with distress and risk. From a narrative lens (Bamberg and Andrews 2004), this canonical expectation is disrupted by the small stories of the participants. Our analysis does not minimise or mitigate these stories of vulnerability; however, our small story approach has identified many stories of fun and play, suggesting these themes are central to children’s recoveries; specifically, the accessibility of fun in, and through, relationships.
Agency and Choice in Service and School Contexts
The theme of agency and choice was central to how children narrated their small stories of participation in the programme. Whilst children described many instances of having fun, there were also coexisting stories of choices that appeared to be constrained. These intersecting stories reveal the complexity of enjoying the group, whilst negotiating the constraints on the choices available to children in the context of school and a DV service. Children described having fun and making friends, highlighting multiple positive aspects of the group. However, they also highlighted that they did not wish to be treated ‘like babies’ (Table 1). This statement links to their consistent references in the interviews to choice and power. Not wishing to be treated like babies is indicative of the relationality of their agency and choice regarding how they experienced the intervention. Jo articulated that although she enjoyed the group, she was aware, particularly at the beginning about the lack of information made available to her, which was a source of worry.
The scariest thing was meeting new people because all I was told was that there would be other children going, I didn’t know who was going. All I knew was that it was you guys doing it but the only person I knew was [the children’s worker] because she used to work with my cousin and she didn’t [pause] but, but my cousin doesn’t need it any more so she came to do it with me.
She followed this articulation of feeling uncertain, with ‘I enjoyed it though, I enjoy new schools’, before explaining that ‘I felt happy that I had the choice about every time I wanted to come’. Jo articulated two contradictory small stories here; one of worry about meeting new people and not having access to information, and another of having choice and enjoying the very unknown newness she described feeling worried about. According to narrative theory (Georgakopoulou 2006), these stories are told in a non-canonical and fragmented way, but rather than presenting problems for analysis, the interaction between these stories is precisely our point of interest. We suggest this reveals the importance of children making active choices regarding their participation in services. It also reveals the relationality of agency and the complexity of articulating this to a researcher who is both part of a school (an adult in school context), part of the DV service (a researcher attached to the service she has participated in), yet also is not fully situated in both, and is simultaneously a curious person who wanted to hear her stories.
Jo’s participation in the group was a positive experience, but she still recognised her need for a sense of autonomy about how and when she participated. Sophie had a similar experience:
Interviewer: do you think that you wanted to come [to the group] yourself?
Sophie: my mum. My mum made me come… I just wanted to see what it was like yeah, but I wanted to go see some friends and stuff, after school and stuff. I wanted to skip some to see my friends, but my mum said no you have to go every week like every other person like every after school club, you’ve got to go. I was like uuuuurgh mummy
Interviewer: That’s tough? So OK [pause] so maybe sometimes there were times when you didn’t really want to come because maybe you wanted to play with your friends, but your mum made you come
Interviewer: so how did you feel when your mum made you come?
Sophie: [uses an ‘upset’ toy bear to show the expression]
Interestingly, Sophie was the most expressive about her perspective regarding her positive experiences of the group. She expressed fondness of the group and sadness at the group ending. However, she positioned these feelings alongside her sense of lacking choice about her participation. For Sophie, it was important she could come in her ‘own time’. Her choice and agency were reoccurring topics of discussion in the interview. When asked about her ideas about a better way for it to be, she explained:
If it was like in school times or something, and we could go when we wanted to go. If we were in lessons and we wanted to go, we could just say erm, I need to go to the group. Like so we could come in our own time… it isn’t good when people force you to go, is it?
Likewise, Jo also discussed her initial worries. She said:
We could have had a show around as a starter to see where we were going to be and who we were going to be with. Stuff like that… mhmm [on the first day] I didn’t even know where I was going. I just arrived at [the school] and I just saw you and [the facilitators] and I was just like OK I’m really excited now but then I was nervous as well.
Although Jo and Sophie expressed their concerns, they communicated their anticipation and curiosity about the group, and suggested possible ways to improve the group. Jo’s above articulation: ‘I’m really excited now but then I was nervous as well’ speaks to the complexity of the intersecting positions we describe here: these small stories of attending the programme are filled with newness, unknowns, relationships and fun. Notably, children actively negotiated their social positioning through the narration of their small stories. (New) Sociology of childhood scholars have critiqued the positioning of childhood as a time of development, dependency and freedom, arguing for the need to view children as active agents (Wyness 2012). Scholars who challenge the binary positioning of childhood and adulthood have also challenged the framing of childhood as a time of becoming rather than being (Burman 2017; Twamley et al. 2017). Power relations that underpin this categorical view of childhood and (lack of) agency, position children as less competent to offer views which are taken seriously (Burman 2017). Consequently, ideological discourses of dependency and becoming (rather than being) minimise the importance of children making choices. Our analysis of children’s narrations of small stories suggests that the relationality of choice and agency are crucial to consider in the delivery of children’s programmes.
Negotiating Intersecting Identities
DV is typically a non-normative childhood experience, in that it diverges from what children ‘should’ experience in childhood (O’Dell et al. 2018). Consequently, children and families affected by DV are typically positioned as ‘other’ in social discourse. As highlighted by Morrow (2011), a ‘broken home’ discourse can be profoundly impactful. This marginalisation through normative ideologies about risk, family life and vulnerability, was evident in the way children narrated their small stories of the programme and their everyday lives. In the interviews, children shifted the focus of their talk away from the programme and towards other aspects of their lives. This suggests that although the group was experienced as ‘fun’ and beneficial, it was also experienced as a space in which they negotiated their identities as children in families where there has been DV. Children’s methods of shifting their talk to other topics speaks to the need to recognise children’s other intersecting identities. Jack’s references to his hobbies suggests it is important to consider all aspects of children’s lives and identities, in spite of the DV, which led him to access the service.
Jack: but if [the group] was on a Thursday I’d have to rush home and then to the gym now
Interviewer: ahh yeah, now you go to boxing after school then after school wouldn’t really be that great? Do you think that it would have been better during school time or do you think after school still would be good?
Jack: during school
Interviewer: so if [the facilitators] did the group again for other children?
Jack: during school, so I could play on my X Box for longer at home.
All children highlighted their need to be treated as individuals with lives that exist outside of DV. From a narrative small story perspective, the fragmentation and non-canonical way of telling these stories would seem like a disorganised structure of narrating experiences of the programme that children knew the interviewer was interested in. However, as we are interested in what this non-canonical storytelling can reveal by analysing the relation between the stories told and the context of their telling, there is something meaningful in acknowledging how children negotiate ideological discourses about childhood, vulnerability and family life. Children were keen to talk about the different things in their lives that were, and continued to be, crucial aspects of their identities. They did not want the group (and research interviews) to disrupt other things in their lives, such as lessons, seeing friends, and other activities (such as football, boxing, WhatsApp and the X Box). This can also be seen in their ‘Top Tips’ (Table 1) poster in which children suggested that DV professionals should ‘talk (to children) about other things, not just things at home’. Therefore, we suggest that it is important for children’s intersecting identities to be recognised and valued in DV service contexts.
With little or no prompting, all children spoke about relationships in their lives, suggesting it is important to consider the significance of these relationships and children’s psychosocial contexts, when they access services. First on Jack’s agenda was to tell the interviewer about the significant relationships in his life: ‘I’ve got lots of uncles… I’ve forgot them cos I don’t see them very often’. However, unlike the other children, Sophie did not discuss her family members, apart from when she positioned her mother as ‘forcing’ her to attend the intervention. In fact, she positioned friendships as central, as she described the importance of her new friendship with Jo, and stated ‘you can’t break friendships can you?’
It was clear that the children had made meaningful relationships with each other. Each child described the value they placed on their new friendships, again, highlighting the psychosocial and relational aspect of their experiences of the programme. Given that the children made friendships within the group, the group’s ending was particularly significant to most of the children, who expressed their wish for the group to last longer.
Interviewer: we said that the best thing about the group was Liam and the worst thing for you was leaving [pause]. Do you think if the group were to carry on then you’d keep going?
Interviewer: Ah, how long do you think the group could have gone on for if it was the right way for you?
Jack also explained ‘the best thing was meeting Liam… Leaving the group was the worst thing… Liam is my best friend now’. Likewise, Jo explained that the group ending was a celebration, but she also experienced conflicting emotions because she did not want to leave. ‘When I graduated I felt happy and I didn’t want to leave… but I have got my book and my pen and now I can just write.’. Sophie also attributed much of her meaningful changes to her new friendship with Jo: ‘I feel like a different person… I didn’t have any friends, but [Jo], she changed that…’.
These stories of relationships were central to each of the themes we identified, but it is also a theme that needs to be recognised itself. Our small story analysis recognises the relationality of both being in the group (relationships with their peers), and when relationships outside the group influenced the experience of the programme (for instance, families and others outside of the immediate group context). Children’s narrations of these small stories reveals the ways in which children de-individualise their recovery trajectory by actively positioning themselves in multiple relationships. Social and practice discourse assumes that children who experience DV are likely to struggle to build meaningful relationships (Radford et al. 2013) and that recovery can be marked by the improvement of individual symptomology (Lee et al. 2012) – therefore overlooking the relationality of recovery. We do not suggest that symptomology should be ignored, but we do propose an alternative extended picture – that recovery can be viewed as relational too.