What Kids Mean When They Say “I Don't Know”

When a child makes an allegation of abuse, typically that child is interviewed by a professional to gain more information. However, children being interviewed commonly respond to questions with “I don’t know.”

This response can be tricky as it can be interpreted in many ways. Is the child saying “I don’t know” because they feel uncomfortable talking about abuse? Or maybe they are using that response because they’re confused with the allegation they made or can’t recall what happened?

An Examination of “Don't Know” Responses in Forensic Interviews With Children

A 2014 study of “don’t know” responses in forensic interviews with children was conducted to explore the possible meanings behind this common response. In the study, 76 transcripts of investigative interviews with allegedly abused children showed some patterns and indications of meanings behind the responses. (See Earhart, Becky, La Rooy, David, Brubacher, Sonja, Lamb, Michael. 2014/11/01. An Examination of “Don't Know” Responses in Forensic Interviews with Children. 32 Behavioral Sciences & the Law.)

In the study, interviewers rejected the “I don’t know responses” nearly 30% of the time. Interviewers consistently asked about the same topic, using riskier questions that were phrased differently to gain more information.

In many cases, children answered these different follow-up questions, even though their previous response suggested that they didn’t know the answer to the question. Let’s have a look at some of the possible meanings behind the “I don’t know” answer.

The Child Feels Compelled to Answer

First, it’s important to note that in many experimental studies analyzing the use of pre-interview questions, children are sometimes encouraged to reply with the “I don’t know” response where appropriate. Children feel compelled to answer adults, so in many cases they’ll respond with “I don’t know” as a default answer.

Plus, children may receive conflicting messages from different adults whether it’s appropriate to say “I don’t know” during the interview. Some adults may encourage the child to say “I don’t know” to an answer if they’re not sure, while others may encourage them to be as specific as they can.

In some interviews, for example, interviewers are under less pressure to gather information, so are more likely to accept “I don’t know” as a response.

The Child is Confused

It’s possible that, as most kids aren’t used to being interviewed by an adult, the process of interviewing is overwhelming for children. With so many questions on such an intense subject, it may be that they are unable to process and understand all the questions, and so respond with “I don’t know.”

It’s also possible that when interviewers are unsupportive towards, or unaccepting of, the “I don’t know” response and prompt for further information, the children receive conflicting messages on their responses. When faced with another question that’s similar to the one they responded “I don’t know” to, they may feel inclined to answer it this time.

The study found that children were more likely to answer specific questions after interviewers rejected “I don’t know” answers. This is quite worrying, as it suggests that children may be guessing an answer to please the interviewer. This, of course, undermines the accuracy of the interview and the life of the person accused.

For example, if a young child has made an accusation of abuse, they may feel compelled to give some information to an interviewer, even if it isn’t completely true.

The Child Is Reluctant to Talk About Trauma

Interviewers may believe that children can be avoidant of discussing traumatic experiences. The “I don’t know” response could be an unwillingness to talk about experiences that they do remember. But in such cases, they avoid speaking about it to prevent upset.

Yet, the study referenced above found that there was no evidence to suggest that the “I don’t know” responses showed a reluctance to discuss abuse. Many people believe that the “I don’t know” response shows that a child feels sad or uncomfortable talking about abuse. The study, though, suggests otherwise.

When interviewers push for answers, they can often receive the answers from the children. While these responses may not be precise, it shows that they end up answering, nonetheless.

There was nothing in the study to show that kids who replied “I don’t know” more often were any less informative through the interviews. That’s because the frequency of “I don’t know” responses was unrelated to the amount of information given in the interview. This shows that children don’t simply state “I don’t know” if they’re finding it painful talking about abuse.

In the study, children showed to be making thoughtful decisions about uncertainty, providing plenty of information about the aspects of the events that they do remember.