When Children Report Molestation

A child’s safety. It’s a prime fear of every mother, a fear that can add greatly to her stress. Naomi is a mom with a 5-year old daughter, Susie. She knows her child well and is always on the alert for signs that something may not be right. Susie has begun weekly piano lessons with Mr. Butler, and after just a couple of weeks, Naomi notes that she tends to get moody as the lesson approaches.

Naomi gets suspicious and starts to question Susie about her lessons. The questions are pretty straightforward at first, things like, “Don’t you like the lessons? Your dad and I think you’re really going to get good.”  “Are the lessons getting too hard?”

Susie is generally vague and non-committal with her answers. At one point, Naomi asks, “Does Mr. Butler do anything that makes you uncomfortable? Does he ever touch you?” Susie nods with her head down, and when mom asks, “Where?” she points to the inside of her thigh.

We’ll get back to Naomi and Susie, but first let’s ask what psychologists know about asking very young children if they’re being molested. In one study, a pediatrician gave children (5 – 6 years old) a routine physical exam that was videotaped. Shortly after the exam, the children were given an anatomically-correct doll and asked to show a nurse how the physician examined them. (These dolls are often used in suspected cases of child sex molestation, the assumption being that the doll’s anatomical detail will increase accuracy of the child’s story.)

A few – not all – of the children re-enacted events that did not happen, showing how the physician had inserted a stethoscope or tongue depressor into body orifices, or had hit them using an instrument. Were these children compulsive liars, determined to destroy the career of this physician? Of course not! Why the distorted story then?

A likely explanation is that the anatomical detail of the doll was a novelty that encouraged them to get creative with their play. In other words, they were playing games with a new toy. Ironically, the doll used to increase accuracy of children’s stories actually decreased accuracy in some cases.

Results like these raise concern because in cases of child abuse, children are often the only witnesses. Attorneys representing the accused are especially skeptical of testimony or accounts offered by young children, noting that they have active imaginations, and can be influenced by props like the dolls, and by how questions are structured.

Psychologist Michael Lamb says children are good witnesses – if they are interviewed correctly. Lamb noted 4 types of questions that can be posed to a child: Invitations – “Would you tell me what happened?” Directive – “What time of day was it?” Options – “Did he touch you?” Suggestive – “He touched you, didn’t he?”

Lamb reported that the first type of question is generally best because it allows free recall on the part of the child. The options and suggestive questions would increase the likelihood of error because the child is obviously influenced to answer in a particular way. Note above how Susie said she was molested only after Naomi opened the door with her suggestive question, “Does he ever touch you?” It turned out that Susie hated the piano and was looking for a way out of the lessons without disappointing her parents. There was no molestation.

The lesson here is simple. When looking for accuracy in children’s stories, give them freedom to move in directions that take their perspective – not yours – into account. Also, be clear about your unconditional emotional support, which will reassure them that their honesty will not bring negative reactions from you.

When you think about it, these suggestions would be helpful in any conversation. For instance, suppose a friend of yours asks for advice about how best to resolve a stressful issue confronting them. Most people take a “Here’s what I would do” approach when asked for advice. This self-centered strategy, of course, completely overlooks the fact that a plan of action must be developed from the other person’s perspective, not from yours. Also, assuring your friend of your unconditional emotional support – within limits, of course! – can bring them a lot of confidence as they consider their options and decide what to do to resolve their problem.

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