One of the reasons many children do not tell anyone about being sexually abused is because they fear that their loved ones will not believe them. Often, their abuser is a friend or family member, and although children may know that what occurred is wrong, they may be confused and worried that their caregivers will think they have misconstrued the behavior. Children who feel neglected or maltreated by caregivers may feel reluctant to disclose abuse, and many abusers threaten children, creating more reasons for nondisclosure. However, when children do reveal abuse, getting them to explain the abuse in a way sufficient to lead to prosecution can be challenging.
Various methods of interrogation are used on child-abuse victims, including open-ended questions, yes/no questions, “What happened?” questions, and “How did that make you feel?” questions. For the most part, open-ended questions and “what” questions tend to provide the least amount of detail. Children often are unable to articulate the details of their abuse. And while “how” questions that prompt children to reveal their physical reactions and feelings allow them to detail their personal experience in great detail, this is the most rarely used form of interrogation. To explore which method would provide the most accurate recollection of abuse and elicit emotional responses that could demonstrate credibility to jurors, judges, and therapists, Thomas D. Lyon of the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California recently examined transcripts from more than 100 child-abuse cases.
Lyon discovered that when children were asked closed-ended questions such as yes/no, their responses were narrow and they exhibited little emotion. Similarly, when they were asked “What happened?” they were hesitant to reveal details and appeared emotionally undisturbed. But when children were asked how the abuse made them feel and what their physical reactions were, the responses were extremely vivid and consistent. They demonstrated emotional responses and used words such as angry, sad, afraid, confused, “sick to my stomach,” and dirty. They manifested facial and physical reactions that allowed those interviewing them to see the damage of the abuse in ways that the children could not articulate when prompted with direct questioning. “Children can be surprisingly articulate about their reactions to sexual abuse, despite their apparent lack of affect in describing the abuse itself,” Lyon said. He hopes that these findings will motivate interviewers, prosecutors, and mental health professionals to evaluate physical and emotional reactions of abuse as a means to gather details from child sexual abuse victims.
Lyon, Thomas D., Nicholas Scurich, Karen Choi, Sally Handmaker, and Rebecca Blank. ‘How did you feel?’: Increasing child sexual abuse witnesses’ production of evaluative information. Law and Human Behavior 36.5 (2012): 448-57. Print.
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