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Why language matters: why we should avoid the term ‘victim’ when talking about children who have experienced abuse

Last updated: 26 Jan 2024 Topics: Blog
A young person clasps their hands together
“I’m so fed up of being called a victim. I’m not a victim."

Childline counselling session with a girl aged 16

We’re all familiar with the term ‘victim.’ We might talk about the victim of a crime or hear about the victims of a natural disaster. The term is generally understood to mean someone who has suffered as a result of another’s actions or due to unfortunate circumstances.

But it’s a term that comes with other implications too. And these implications can affect the way safeguarding practitioners perceive children and the way children perceive themselves.

Recognising individual preference

People who have suffered abuse relate to their experiences in different ways. Adults, children and young people who have had the time and/or support to process what has happened to them may have strong feelings about the terms they do and don’t identify with. When speaking to these individuals, it’s important to be led by the language they choose to use themselves.

For some people, ‘victim’ is a term they identify with or relate to in certain contexts. They may feel that it:

  • validates their experience by highlighting that a crime has been committed against them
  • helps them to grieve, cope and live with the abuse they have experienced
  • is a way of fighting for recognition of the harms they have suffered.1

Others may prefer the term survivor because it:

  • acknowledges the abuse but focuses on overcoming as opposed to suffering2
  • rejects the traits and characteristics typically associated with victimhood.

Others may not want a label attached to their experiences at all.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) named its panel the ‘Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel,’ in line with the preferences of those adults who shared their stories and experiences of child sexual abuse with the inquiry.

The preference of the individual should always be recognised, respected and reflected in the language we use. For some, ‘victim’ accurately represents their personal experience, but issues can arise when ‘victim’ is used as a blanket term to describe all children and young people who have experienced or are experiencing abuse. 

It labels the child, not the experience

Labels can have a huge impact on the way we see and think about other people. When we refer to children who have experienced abuse as ‘victims,’ we are ascribing a label that defines children only in terms of the abuse they have suffered.

Labelling children in this way can affect the way professionals perceive and therefore support children. If children are only seen as victims of abuse, and not as rounded individuals with unique needs, goals, interests and dreams, this can limit the types of support and mentorship professionals can offer them.

The term ‘victim’ also fails to differentiate between abuse suffered by children and abuse suffered by adults. This can risk drawing attention away from the specific forms of support and intervention required when children, as opposed to adults, experience abuse.

It impacts how children see themselves

If children are aware that they have been labelled ‘victims,’ this can affect the way they see and feel about themselves.3

Studies have shown that people typically associate the term ‘victim’ with weakness, vulnerability and powerlessness.4 If children feel like these characteristics are part of who they are, this is likely to impact their hopes and ambitions for the future, as well as their ability to feel safe and supported should abuse happen again.

Labelling can also prevent individuals from feeling that change and recovery are possible. As one young person commented, "it puts the idea in my head that 'this is exactly what I am like, there’s no hope for change.'"5 So using the term ‘victim’ can make it harder for children to recover and move on from the abuse they have experienced.

Being labelled a ‘victim’ may also make children and young people feel like they are worth less than their peers, making it harder for them to develop and maintain friendships and relationships.

It comes with assumptions about what a ‘victim’ is

The term comes with a whole set of assumptions around how victims should look, sound and behave.6 As discussed, these assumptions typically include traits like passivity and powerlessness.

However, children and young people who have experienced or are experiencing abuse will not always match these assumptions. For example, young people who are being criminally or sexually exploited may initially be made to feel independent, important and respected as part of the grooming process. As a result, young people may feel that they don’t need, or deserve, help because they don’t see themselves as victims of abuse.

Professionals may also assume that abuse isn’t taking place or isn’t as serious because the young person doesn’t ‘look like’ a victim. Our analysis of case reviews on topics including child sexual exploitation and teenagers highlighted how professionals:

  • made assumptions about the level of independence or control that a child or young person had based on how they presented
  • assumed that young people were in a consensual relationship rather than understanding that they were a victim of grooming, coercion and/or exploitation
  • labelled a young person’s behaviour as “challenging” or “risk-taking”, rather than identifying what might be causing it, what risks the young person might be exposed to, and what support was needed.

In some cases, popular notions of victimhood can prevent professionals from seeing or understanding that children and young people are experiencing abuse. This can lead to concerns being dismissed or downplayed, or action being taken too late. It can also lead to children and young people being criminalised instead of protected.

Focus on experiences, not labels

When we don’t know the preferences of the particular individual, it’s important to use language that focuses on experiences, not labels.

Instead of talking about ‘victims,’ say ‘children who have experienced or are experiencing abuse.’ This highlights the fact that we are talking about children, not adults, and distinguishes the child from what has happened to them.

By avoiding the label ‘victim,’ this language helps children to see that their identity isn’t fixed and that abuse is something they can move on from.

Focusing on the experience of abuse can also help professionals to look beyond commonly held assumptions about how victims should look or behave. This can help professionals to recognise and respond to abuse whenever and wherever it occurs.

References

Strobl, R. (2010) Becoming a victim. In S.G.Shoham, P.Knepper and M. Kett (eds) International handbook of victimology. New York: Routledge. pp. 3–25.
Fohring, S. (2018) What’s in a word? Victims on ‘victim.’ International Review of Victimology, 24(3) pp. 1-14
Lynn Skaggs, S. (2023) Labeling theory. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Accessed 16/01/2024].
Fohring, S. (2018) What’s in a word? Victims on ‘victim.’ International Review of Victimology, 24(3) pp. 1-14
Bramley, R. et al. (2019) Youth diversion evidence and practice briefing: minimising labelling (PDF). London: Centre for Justice Innovation.
Van Dijk, J. (2020) Victim labeling theory; a reappraisal. In J. Joseph, and S.Jergenson (eds) An international perspective on contemporary developments in victimology. Cham: Springer. pp. 73–90.

Key points to take away

  • Be led by the preferences of the individual. People experience and relate to their abuse in different ways, and it’s important to be led by the language individuals use themselves.
  • The term ‘victim’ is a label. Labelling children as ‘victims’ can impact the way safeguarding professionals see children and the way children see themselves.
  • Popular notions of victimhood can lead to abuse being missed. Children and young people who are experiencing abuse may not match expectations of how ‘victims’ should look or behave. This can lead to a lack of action to safeguard and protect children.
  • Instead of ‘victims,’ say ‘children who have experienced/are experiencing abuse.’ The language we use should reinforce the fact that abuse is something children have experienced and not who they are.