Understanding Young Children's Responses When Asked What They Know

Questioning or interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse can be a touchy task, one that still needs to be perfected to ensure the legitimacy of such allegations. Unfortunately, children are highly impressionable, especially very young children. And interviewers, including the most experienced out there, still ask leading questions or succumb to the temptation to suggest or “nudge” child interviewees towards a particular response, whether they intend to or not.

It all comes down to psychology. And when it comes to the psychology of very young children, there is another factor outside of suggestibility that can contribute to false allegations. That factor is a child’s inability or difficulty to answer indirect questions.

The Indirect Speech Study

In a 2014 study, researchers sought to understand how young children respond when being question by family, forensic teams, or psychologists. Their findings pointed towards an interesting implication: young children have great difficulty with indirect speech acts, which may result in false testimonies or allegations of abuse. See Angela D. Evans, Stacia Stolzenberg, Kang Lee, and Thomas D. Lyon. Young children’s difficulty with indirect speech acts: Implications for questioning child witnesses. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, October 2014.

When the authors of the study reference “indirect speech acts,” they are referring to questions asked of a child by a forensic interviewer such as, “Do you know where it happened?” “These questions directly ask if respondents know, while indirectly asking what respondents know. If respondents answer ‘yes,’ but fail to elaborate, they are either ignoring or failing to recognize the indirect question.”

The authors found that poor choice of questions on the part of the interviewer “can significantly underestimate children’s actual abilities, independently of suggestiveness.”

Two different studies looked at the effect of indirect speech on positively treated and negatively treated children’s interview responses after the alleged event. The children were aged between two and seven years old. The children were all read a particular story and later were interviewed using What/Where/When and “Do You Know” questioning. On top of this, the children then completed a number of tasks to test their executive functions.

The results from both studies concluded that using “Do You Know” questions actually increased the chances of not getting a response that answers the indirect question (i.e., what the child knows), especially for the young children and for children that had weaker inhibitory control abilities.

What Do These Results Mean for Forensic Child Interviewing?

Prior to this study, early research on child interviews suggested that “dumbed down” questions can absolutely underestimate a child’s abilities, outside of suggestiveness. On top of that, not being able to answer such questions in the manner an adult might want can also undermine a child’s ability to be credible. To put it simply, interviewers may assume a child is simply not intelligent enough to answer questions that are not yes-no or “Do You Know” questions. However, ironically, these yes-no and “Do You Know” questions are highly indirect and can actually have the opposite effect of that intended. The studies’ authors assert that children are quite proficient at answering direct questions that are not yes-no and “Do You Know,” and such questions can yield more accurate and detailed results from young children.

Yes-no questions still dominate the questioning techniques used in forensic interviews today. Some studies have found that young children tend to give “yes” or “no” responses to these questions without elaboration, insinuating that they are merely responding to the question in a way they think the adult interviewer may want. The lack of elaboration in children’s answers to “Do You Know” or yes-no questions leaves the interviewer with less information or at least shorter responses than the interviewer might otherwise get without using that method of questioning (such as if the interviewer used open-ended questions, which prompt children for a longer and more detailed response than yes-no questions do.) Children may also show response bias when it comes to answering ye-no or “Do You Know” questions. The exact function or reasoning behind this kind of bias is still unknown, as various studies in the last few decades have found that there is little consistency between “yes” bias, “no” bias, and no bias at all.

If you are being falsely accused of abusing a child who has undergone a forensic interview, it will be important for you (or your lawyer) to obtain a copy of the video and audio recording of the interview, in addition to a transcript of the interview. Only then will you be able to determine the quality of the interview and quality of the response given by the child.