Normal Conversations With Parents Change Children's Memories

Is it really that far-fetched to point out that children can incorrectly recall memories of abuse?

In fact, some studies suggest children are likelier to recall false memories of negative events compared to something neutral.

Perhaps, it's because a young child's mind isn't fully developed. Making it challenging to comprehend specific events, which could lead to misinterpretations of the facts.

There doesn't even need to be any nefarious tactics involved. Yes, some forensic interviewers – for instance – might question a preschooler with an ulterior motive. But much of the time, a child's memory can be changed through very normal conversations—even with their parents.

Here, we’ll examine how parents can alter their children’s memories just through everyday dialogue. We’ll be borrowing from the following paper: Gabrielle F. Principe, Erica Schindewolf. Natural conversations as a source of false memories in children: Implications for the testimony of young witnesses. Developmental Review 32 (2012) 205-223.

Children's Testimony in Legal Matters

According to the paper cited above, in forensics, "remembering is successful to the degree that witnesses tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

In everyday life, we tell stories to be compelling and engaging, but in the legal system, all that matters is the facts, down to the last detail. This tends to stretch the powers of our memories because most people aren't familiar with needing to recall such specific information.

Children are greatly affected by the above issue, as their testimony tends to be the sole piece of evidence in many Child Abuse Central Index child welfare services investigations. Furthermore, a child's memory is often relied upon in family court proceedings. They're frequently asked about poor behavior that their parents displayed, such as substance abuse or domestic violence.

The investigating social workers should feel a pressing need to either bolster or undermine the credibility of a child's memory, given its role in a successful investigation, by looking for additional evidence. Akin to a piece of DNA that would place a defendant at the scene of a crime, the testimony of children must be untainted and handled with care.

For the above reason, multitudes of research studies have been conducted that are dedicated to pinpointing factors that compromise the credibility of a child's memory.

As such, the forensic child interview process has been well-honed over time, done in a way that isn't overly suggestive while focusing on the facts. This is why anyone who asks a child questions about an allegation of child abuse should be very well trained and experienced in the task.

It's Not the Forensic Interview That We Have to Worry About

The problem is that, more often than not, the first person to be asking a child questions about an allegation of abuse is in fact not a trained professional, but the child’s parent—who CPS social workers are accustomed to calling “the non-offending parent.”

Researchers have found that while forensic interviews of children have improved, there is a growing concern with “suggestive factors outside of the formal interview context.” It's been proven that outside influences on a child can contaminate a child's memory before the child even has a chance to be interviewed by a forensics professional.

For example, studies point at a child's vulnerability towards letting the contributions of others construct their experience.

Children struggle with source attribution, making them likelier to believe events they've had relayed by someone else is something that actually happened to them personally. On top of this issue, a young child generally requires help from somebody else with figuring ways to explain and tell their experience.

Now, this is perfectly acceptable in everyday life, but it creates a level of distortion that destroys s a memory's validity.

We see something like this happen with a child's parents after there have been accusations of abuse. Often, a mother or father will frame sexual violence as a special game. Or they'll ask closed-ended questions such as "mommy hurt you when she put you to bed, didn't she?"

Furthermore, preschoolers don't understand that other people incorrectly remember experiences. They believe that memories are exact replicas of what happened and can only be a representation of the truth. So if a parent poses a hypothetical while asking a question, the child may believe the parent is saying the hypothetical is actually what happened and the child may go along with it due solely to the child’s trust in the parent.

In a legal scenario, this becomes challenging because a child can have full confidence in what they're claiming but still be 100% wrong.

Lastly, as an adult, your peers and loved ones will tell you if you're wrong about the specifics of an event. Or you'll remember parking the car on the 3rd floor of a parking garage when its really on the 1st floor. Therefore, you know what a false memory feels like.

Whereas a child can talk about spending a day with an imaginary friend, and not be questioned. They have no frame of reference for what it's like to misremember something.

The above reasons make it very apparent as to why it's challenging to maintain the integrity of a child's memory for forensic investigations.

Who do Children Spend the Most Time With?

Children spend the most time with their parents. As such, the non-interview, normal conversations that can negatively impact the veracity of a child's memory are likely going to be had with mom or dad.

To attack false allegations, it's wise to investigate whether these kinds of conversations occurred. If this can be done successfully, you'll be one step closer to proving your innocence.