Language matters

08 June 2023

Topic: Voices of young people
Author: Amy Miskimmin-Logan

A selection of words that care experienced young people find stigmatising.

Amy Miskimmin-Logan, Participation Development Worker at Our Hearings Our Voice (OHOV) shares the thinking behind the ‘Language Leaders’ project which aims to change the language used in the Children’s Hearings System.

A Children’s Hearing is a legal meeting set up because there are concerns about a child’s, or young person’s, wellbeing, or the care they are receiving.

In November (2022), Our Hearings, Our Voice began to facilitate ‘Language Leaders’, a co-design group which brought together six hearings-experienced young people from the OHOV, Voice and Inclusion Project and Falkirk Champions Board, which helps drive change and improvements in the quality of life and well-being of care experienced young people across Scotland, and with five professionals from social work, children’s rights, advocacy, Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, and Children’s Hearings Scotland.

Some of the language that young people experience as they attend their Hearings can feel stigmatising, cold/technical or confusing. This group is committed to changing this by raising awareness and sharing the harmful impact certain words can have on children and young people. The project is strategically supported by all the key organisations involved in Children’s Hearings and I have been working with some of the hearings-experienced young people (Ciara, Achilles, Helene, Mustang, and Quack Armstrong**) who are keen to explain more about their experiences of language at Children’s Hearings and what being part of our language improvement project means to them.

Reports and letters are almost what define you – Helene

“Language is so important, especially when you’re in care. It’s a period of your life when so much is happening, and the only way to keep track of what’s going on is through paperwork. So, if the language in hearings and paperwork is constantly negative about you and your family it’s going to make you feel worse, especially as a child. You think, ‘if everyone else is thinking that then maybe I should be thinking that too.’ It’s really strange that adults are allowed to speak to children in this way and call them ‘badly behaved’ and ‘challenging’ and ‘a nuisance’, when the reality is, that child’s going through a hard time.”

If you change language, you change lots – Helene

“We’ve all experienced language in the Children’s Hearings system that is judgemental, labelling, stigmatising, or confusing and we want it to stop. Language is so important. The way people behave and feel and even the atmosphere in the Hearing itself can all be improved with the right language. Language has a huge impact on the way children behave and communicate. Language and behaviour are forms of communication - body language, tone, words, all these things need to be considered. If the wrong language is used in a Hearing it creates a volatile environment and can make the child feel upset, angry, frustrated, or anxious. This affects their ability to make decisions and get across what they want; in a heightened emotional state they might end up asking for something or agreeing with something that they don’t really want at all.”

A hearing is supposed to help and uplift a young person- Achilles

“If we change language we can change the way children and young people feel and act in their lives. If you just hear how much trouble you are, how badly behaved, how much of a nuisance you are, it makes you feel worse about yourself and you start believing it. You also dread going to Hearings as you know you’re just going to be criticised the entire time. Negative language can make a hearing an incredibly hostile environment and further perpetuate the feeling that it’s ‘us vs them’ when it’s not. If you hear positive things like how hard you’re trying, you’ll realise you’re being recognised for the difficult time you’re going through and you’ll believe in yourself more.”

We must always listen to what young people tell us. How language is felt or experienced can vary from person to person. Care must be taken: for example, sometimes if too much praise is given to a young person they can feel under pressure to behave in a certain way. Sometimes adults mean well and believe they are using the ‘right’ language when they’re not. A lot of the language we hear in the Children’s Hearings system carries stigma, even words that sound positive at first. For example, OHOV board member Ciara really didn’t like being labelled as ‘articulate’ in her hearings:

“It might seem like a positive word, but just because I’m well-spoken, adults assumed I understood everything that was happening in my hearing. I was twelve. I’m a people-pleaser and when I was young I said what I thought the adults wanted to hear, but I left my hearing not really understanding what had happened.”

For Mustang, positive language was encouraging:

“I’ve been told some positive things in hearings before, they’ve talked about how much I’ve matured and grown up and that made me feel quite good about myself and how far I’ve come. When people use the right language it can make a positive difference to me, like being recognised for your efforts”

Finding ‘principles of language to help guide an approach

It’s clear that using the ‘right’ language isn’t straightforward and even if an adult means well, they can still make mistakes. Part of our work in Language Leaders has involved putting harmful words into categories of how words and phrases feel, such as ‘confusing’, ‘stigmatising’, ‘cold’ and so on. We’re flipping these categories on their heads to find ‘principles’ of language, which we hope will guide adults in their approach to language and communication with children and young people in the Children’s Hearings system. Quack Armstrong explains that as well as highlighting harmful examples of language, we’re also providing examples of words or phrases that children and young people would prefer adults involved in Children’s Hearings to use:

“Putting the words into categories shows that we’re putting a lot of thought into words and not just binning things and wiping the slate clean. We’re considering different experiences and outlooks on how the words are used.”

As part of our Language Leaders project we developed an interactive virtual bin, where other children and young people can suggest words and phrases that they’d like to see eliminated from Children’s Hearings. We check the bin regularly to see what kinds of words children and young people most want to get rid of and this shapes our work with Language Leaders. Reaching out to other children and young people has always been important to us as we want to hear and learn from the experiences of others. On the matter of language, ours isn’t the only voice and we hope that the virtual bin will give other children and young people a chance to speak up and get their own ideas across. There have been almost 1000 deposits into the bin so far with 87 ‘labels’ or phrases that children and young people do not want used in a hearing.


Being part of the change - Achilles

“Being part of Language leaders feels like a very unique experience where us, as the young people, have said what the issue is and have been given the resources to be able to fix it. It feels like something that we have said is a problem is actually being given full focus. We have the opportunity to actually do something to make it better. We’re part of the solution. Our work gives us a prime spot to say what we’ve experienced and it’s not just empty promises, we’re seeing that change happen in real time.”

Ciara explains why this is so important:

“I love getting involved in Language Leaders as part of OHOV because it’s something tangible - I can see the change happening in front of me, I can see the things I want to change actually starting to happen. I love that there’s a good mix of people from different backgrounds and lots of us are care experienced too.”

Find out more about Language Leaders

Visit the interactive word bin

**At Our Hearings Our Voice each Board Member can use an alias of a character toy duck to ensure they are protecting their identify in line with Our Hearings Our Voice safeguarding responsibilities and legislation. Each Board Member chooses the duck and name for themselves and will use these aliases when sharing their experiences and perspectives for blog posts, social media or in other communication.


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