How Coaching by Parents Affects a Child's Eyewitness Report

Sometimes, a parent may tell a child to tell a lie or state half-truths to make an allegation of child abuse against another person. Coaching by parents is a common occurrence when one parent wants to get full custody of their child by making the other parent look bad. It also happens a lot when parents are desperate to get revenge on the other parent.

It can be difficult to tell that a child may not be telling the whole truth, but it may become apparent that a child has been coached by a parent.

Stress and Anxiety

Like adults, children tend to get stressed and anxious when they do something wrong. In cases where the child knows that what they’re saying isn’t true, they may fail to communicate properly due to stress and anxiety.

They don’t want to disappoint the parent who coached them and may also be afraid of seeing both parents fight because of what they said, untruthfully, about the one parent who stands accused.

Memory Reconstruction

Most parents who coach children assume that their child’s memory is much like a video recorder that replays specific events at will. However, the human mind isn’t designed to work like a video-recording device. It can only reconstruct existing memories. What the child remembers is pretty much their brain reconstructing a new picture of a particular activity that they witnessed or experienced in some way.

Memory reconstruction can affect a coached child’s eyewitness report, especially when the child can’t recount what they were told to say, word by word. When the child is questioned or asked to discuss what they saw as part of their eyewitness report, they keep changing the story because their memory is altered or their perception of the things they noticed isn’t as vivid. Their memory may be clouded and confused as a result of the coaching.

Surprising Findings

In a study conducted to understand the effect of coaching by parents on child witnesses reports, it replicated a number of well-known trends, but also found some surprising responses. (See Poole & Lindsay. Children’s Eyewitness Reports After Exposure to Misinformation From Parents. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 2001, Vol. 7, No. 1, 27-50.)

The study had children ages 3-8 years old watch a science experiment and listen to a story about it told by their parents, which story included both true and false information about the science experiment. The children were later interviewed, twice, to see if the children were able to distinguish between the science experiment that they actually witnessed versus the falsehoods that their parents told them about the same science experiment.

The expected results of the study were that “older children were generally less suggestible than younger children and better able to identify the source of information when they were explicitly asked to do so.”

Surprisingly, though, 1) “older children were not less suggestible than younger children in response to open-ended prompts,” 2) “false reports of unpleasant touch were as common as false reports of innocuous science demonstrations,” 3) children responded more accurately to yes-no questions, and 4) even 8-year-olds sometimes reported fictitious events despite being instructed to think about where the information came from (i.e., from the actual science experiment or their parents’ story about the science experiment).

One interesting aspect of this study is that it actually delved into the issue of a child’s recall (and retelling) of a situation where someone had tried to lead them to believe that they had been touched. What the researchers found was that “reports of fictitious touch experiences appeared in children’s free-recall narratives as often as reports of fictitious science demonstrations did.” This means that “touching is not a special class of event for children, but, instead, that the frequency of reporting touching will vary as a function of children’s expectations and the clarity of their memories.”

Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough studies on these issues with children between the ages and 9 and 18 years. That age group has been virtually ignored by researchers who focus on these topics.

Coaching by Parents Undermines the Credibility of Child Eyewitness Reports

There’s no denying that parents can have a big influence over their children’s beliefs and actions. Telling a child to give an untrue account is wrong. It is harmful to the falsely accused, harmful to the child him or herself, and harmful to the short-term and long-term relationship between the child and the falsely accused.