Questioning Children

If a child continues to deny having been sexually abused despite a worried parent’s growing convictions to the contrary, the parent’s anxiety level remains elevated.  Without the child acknowledging what the parent assumes, the anxious parent struggles with his or her own unsubstantiated assumptions. Therefore, in an attempt at reducing their own anxiety level, the parent increases the frequency with which he or she questions the child about issues of sexual abuse.

Over the course of their development, especially by the age of six, children learn that repetitions of the same parental questions indicate they have previously responded incorrectly.  Otherwise, why would their parent continue asking the same questions over and over? (Siegal, Waters, & Dinwiddy, 1988). Moreover, children will attempt to answer adult questions even if the questions are bizarre.  When asked non-sensical questions such as, “Is milk bigger than water?,” most 5- and 7-year-olds replied “yes” or “no.”  These children rarely replied with “I don’t know” (Hughes & Grieve, 1980).

Thus, worried parents who question their children repeatedly about sexual abuse are seeking information.  The children, however, assume that their parents are testing their knowledge.  Consequently, children will alter their answers looking for a response that elicits parental approval. Parental questions can also provoke vivid imagery for children – “What did the pebble in your shoe feel like when you were walking” – or alternatively, “What did it feel like when he touched you?”  Once the critical imagery is planted via suggestive questions, it can provide children the alternative response they are seeking (Poole & White, 1991).

Compared to an unfamiliar interviewer, children demonstrate less accurate recall of an event when interviewed by one of their parents.  In one study in particular, 71% of the parents used at least one ineffective questioning technique such as rapid fire questions, repetitive questions, or pressing for a response (Ricci, Beal, & Dekle, 1996).

Maternal Recall of Conversations

When attempting to recall conversations with their children, mothers’ reports may not be complete, and they omit important details Bruck, Ceci, & Francoeur, 1999). In particular, this study demonstrated that mothers have difficulty recalling: (1) how they elicited information from their children, (2) whether their children’s statements were spontaneous or prompted, and (3) whether specific utterances were spoken by themselves or their children.

This study also found that “… if probed about the contexts of certain utterances (for example, when a mother reports, `My child said that a man touched him’), our data indicate that the mother may not be able to accurately recall whether these were the child’s own words or if her statement is a reconstruction of a conversation in which the child provided one word answers to a series of direct and possibly leading questions from the mother.” (p. 102).

Compared to an unfamiliar interviewer, children demonstrate less accurate recall of an event when interviewed by one of their parents.  In one study in particular, 71% of the parents used at least one ineffective questioning technique such as rapid fire questions, repetitive questions, or pressing for a response (Ricci, Beal, & Dekle, 1996).

Anxiety and Biased Interpretations           

Young children often respond to questions in a vague, open-ended manner that invites considerable interpretation (Campbell, 1992). These kinds of ambiguous responses invite worried, anxious parents to leap to plausible sounding, but ultimately ill-advised interpretations. In particular, parents who are worried and anxious can misinterpret their children’s behavior: “… maternal overreporting of [their child’s] anxious symptoms was related systematically to the level of maternal anxiety, and this anxiety-related overreporting seemed to account for the presence of children who received a diagnosis solely from the parents report” (Frick, Silverthorn, & Evans, 1994).

The relevant research demonstrates that anxious people interpret ambiguous sentences in a threatening way.  In response to the following sentence – “The doctor examined little Emma’s growth” – anxious people interpreted “growth” to mean tumor rather than height (Eysenck, Mogg, May, Richards, & Mathews, 1991). Related data also demonstrate that people who are distressed will interpret homophones (morning-mourning) that can be neutral or sad, in a sad manner.  In other words, when hearing the homophone they conclude it means “mourning” (Halberstadt, Niedenthal, & Kushner, 1995).

Given the ambiguity so frequently characteristic of children’s verbal behavior (e.g., “He touched me”), the anxiety level of worried parents can rapidly lead them into a biased interpretation of what their child says.  In other words, they expect to discover the worst case scenario; and as a result, that is what they eventually think they have discovered. In response to concluding that their child has been sexually abused, anxious parents will then interpret for the child what they assume to have happened.  Rather than interpret a possibly benign incident as “He touched me,” the child can re-interpret the incident as “He touched me bad” as a result of parental influence.

Consequently, parents who are worried and anxious as a result of assuming their child has been sexually abused can distort and taint the memory of that child without any premeditated intent at doing so. Therefore, undertaking an investigative interview of a child with one or both of their parents present is inappropriate.  It encourages the child to simply repeat what he or she originally told the parent rather than recall details related to the event in question. 

Suggestibility and Memory

Leading and suggestive questions – asked by a worried, anxious parent – can profoundly distort a child’s memory to the degree that she reports imaginary events as if they happened (Clarke-Stewart, Thompson, & Lepore, 1989; Siegel, Waters, & Dinwiddy, 1988).  In response to leading and suggestive questions directed to them by a trusted adult, children contaminate their memories with imagination (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993). To the degree that children are subjected to repeated questioning that arouses their imagination, they are quite inclined to confuse actual events and imaginary events (Ceci, & Bruck, 1995).

Confusion between actual events and imaginary events transpires because of what is known as the “Post-event information effect” (Loftus, & Hoffman, 1989; Loftus, 1992).,   After witnessing an important event, people are sometimes exposed to new information that can actually change their memory, even causing nonexisting details to become incorporated into the previously acquired memory. For example, the internationally respected psychologist Jean Piaget reported the following example of how his own memory was distorted by post-event information:

“… one of my first memories would date, if it were true, from my second year.  I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about 15.  I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me.  I was held in by the strap fastened around me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief.  She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face.  Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels.  I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station.  When I was about 15, my parents received a letter from my former nurse saying she had been converted to the Salvation Army.  She wanted to confess her past faults, and in particular return the watch she had been given as a reward on this occasion.  She had made up the whole story, faking the scratches.  I, therefore, must have heard, as a child, the account of this story, which my parents believed, and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory” (Piaget, 1962).

It is important to note the wealth of details that could be interpreted as supporting the veracity of Piaget’s “memory”: (1) He was sitting in his pram, (2) held in by a strap, (3) as the nurse stood between him and the kidnapper, (4) he could still vaguely recall the scratches on the nurses face, (5) a crowd gathered, (6) a policeman with a short cloak and white baton arrived at the scene, and (7) the kidnapper then fled.

Impressive as these details may seem – and as persuaded as Piaget himself was by them – the fact remains that Piaget imagined this scene. It never occurred as he remembered it. In a more recent study, children were asked, “Do you remember when you got your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital to get it off?” In response to frequent repetitions of this question, the majority of the children who participated in this experiment reported remembering this fictional event (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).

Children participating in the “mousetrap” experiment also reported a wealth of details related to this non-occurring event. One boy in particular, for example, reported: “My brother Colin was trying to get Blowtorch (an action figurine) from me, and I wouldn’t let him take it from me, so he pushed me into the wood pile where the mousetrap was.  And then my finger got caught in it.  And then we went to the hospital, and my mommy, daddy, and Colin drove me there, to the hospital in our van, because it was far away.  And the doctor put a bandage on this finger (indicating)” (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).

Moreover, the children would continue to insist they remembered the “mousetrap incident” even when their own parents subsequently told them no such event ever occurred.  Therefore, this research dramatically demonstrates: (1) it is quite easy to distort a child’s memory via leading and suggestive questions, and (2) once the child’s memory is distorted, the child genuinely believes the distortion. It is relatively easy to suggest to a child a change in touch that he or she actually experienced.  In particular, for example, 4- and 10-year-old children can be convinced they were touched on the shoulder when they were actually touched on the hand, and vice versa (Pezdek & Roe, 1997). Conversely, it is less likely that a completely new touch can be planted in memory or that a touch actually experienced can be suggestively erased from memory.

Source Monitoring Confusion

The post-event information effect distorts and confuses the recall of children by creating source-monitoring problems associated with memory (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993). As a result of source-monitoring failures, children fail to discriminate accurately between what they recall and what they only imagine. For example, one study investigated memories for performed actions compared to imagined actions (e.g. “did you really touch your nose, or did you just imagine yourself touching your nose?”). Compared with adults, 6-year-old children were far more likely to confuse memories of imagining doing and memories of actually doing (Foley & Johnson, 1985). Similarly, 8-year-old children also had difficulty discriminating actions they imagined another person doing from actions that they saw that person do (Lindsay, Johnson, & Kwon, 1991).