Interviewing Children: Tips for Attorneys

As an attorney there may be times you have to interview a child. Understanding some general helpful strategies as well as basic developmental tendencies about different age groups can help you decide how to conduct an interview with a child.

No matter the age or developmental stage, kids often are not forthcoming when it comes to talking about themselves, especially difficult things. Compounding this normal reticence, they may clam up because they don’t want to hurt one of their parents or get someone in trouble. Or they may fear getting in trouble themselves. You can improve their willingness to be forthcoming by how they are prepped for the interview. Give the adult who will bring them to the interview these instructions: “Please do not coach the child to say certain things during the interview; coached children sound coached. Also, coaching tends to make children experience anxiety about the interview as they worry if they will remember what the “right” thing to say is, and coached children often experience anxiety, fear and/or depression after the interview as they question if they “performed correctly” in the interview. The best way to prepare a child for the interview is to say, “A team of professionals are helping me/us to make decisions and come to agreements; these people have helped lots of people who go to court. You are an important part of this family (or this issue), and so one day you are going to go and talk to one of the people on the team. All you have to do is be honest and say whatever you know, think or feel, and there are no right or wrong answers.”

How you introduce yourself and the interview is important as well, and being forthcoming yourself is a good start as it engenders trust. Explain to the child that while it is important to be open and honest, what he/she says will not be kept confidential, however, honesty is important as this is an opportunity for the adults to hear what the child knows, thinks and feels. Assure the child there are no right or wrong answers. Environment is key as well. Make the interview environment neutral, reassuring, and child-friendly. They are more likely to open up when things feel safe and casual. This may be a difficult situation to arrange when you have a formal meeting time in a formal setting and it’s your first (or only) time meeting them, but your attitude can go a long way. Without being disingenuous, try to create a relaxed atmosphere. If possible, engage the child in an age-appropriate activity to decrease the pressure and allow them to relax and open up. Different activities will appeal to different children so it’s a good idea to have a few choices on hand – crayons, cards, dolls or action figures, and carefully selected board games that allow conversation to occur are good materials to have when interviewing a child. The child’s parent can generally bring something that the child is typically happy and comfortable doing. For young children, having their comfort-related stuffed animal or blanket to hold is a good idea.

Remember your goals. It isn’t to resolve a problem, make the child feel better, or even provide answers for the child. Your goal is to get information from them – facts and subjective experience – and this will entail allowing them to show difficult emotions without you trying to quell them. Let them have and share their feelings. Along these lines, empathize with the child if you notice he or she is feeling anxious about the interview. It can help the child feel safe and understood and set the stage for good rapport. A nonjudgmental attitude is critical to the interview process, no matter the age of the child or the situation. Children can often have allegiances that are unexpected for the layperson, and perceived negative judgment from an interviewer toward the person they are protecting can quickly curtail an interview. Or, if you show positive judgment there is the inherent threat of negative judgment, and it might influence the child to try to give the “right” answers to continue to please you. Staying neutrally supportive is a no-fail strategy. Along these lines, avoid starting questions with “why” as the connotation is one of negative judgment (“Why did you/didn’t you, or why did or didn’t someone else…” = [you/they screwed up]). Try replacing “why” with “what made you/led you to -” and “what kept you from -.” Have an attitude of respect and genuine curiosity, as this will prevent judgment and be evident to the child in your nonverbals.

If time allows you should start with more casual questions unrelated to the (possibly traumatic) event for which you”re meeting with the child. A few get-to-know-you questions that allow you to share some light information about yourself to join with the child can be helpful in building rapport and creating a comfortable, safe atmosphere (“What’s your favorite television show? That’s one of my favorites too. Which character do you like the best?”). It can also be a casual jumping off point for conversation more directly related to the precipitating issue (“Oh, you like the dad in the show. How is he like/different from your dad?”). Ask nonsuggestive questions (“What happened next?” instead of “Then did she hit him?”) to avoid leading the child into making inaccurate statements. Generally, use open-ended questions to explore who, what, where, when, and how. Open-ended questions or statements (“What’s a typical day like for you?” and “Tell me more about…”) can be less intimidating and elicit more information than closed questions (“Do you always eat dinner?” and “Does Mommy ever leave you alone at home?”). If the child continues to be reticent with such questions you could try to increase their comfort level by asking questions that are still open-ended but require less of an answer from them (“What’s your favorite food?” “Tell me something you like about going to your friend’s house.”).

Sometimes open-ended questions can result in eliciting vague or little information. Structuring statements can help with this (“You said that your dad was mean to you. Can you tell me more about how he was mean?”) as well as prompts and probes (“Did something happen in the store? Tell me everything that happened there.”).

Letting children know that they are allowed to say they don’t know an answer or don’t understand a question can decrease the possibility of eliciting inaccurate information. Beware of yes/no questions, especially in the beginning of an interview – they are not only restrictive but can establish a culture of brevity within the interview. Also, young children are likely to answer affirmatively in an effort to please the interviewer. Avoid compound questions that ask two things at once (“How do you feel about your mother and your father?” and “How did you get to the party and what did you do when you got there?”). In general, ask succinct questions to decrease the chance of confusing or intimidating the child. Also avoid coercive questions (“Are you sure?”), which implies that the chil’’s first answer was faulty. Similarly, questions like “Is that all?” suggest to the child that they didn’t give you enough and they might feel compelled to give more, even if it’s not true. Pay attention to silences – what they mean from the child and what they might imply to him. Is the child being silent because he’s done talking or because he’s thinking? Is she feeling anxious in this silence? Asking the child if she wants to think more about the question or come back to that topic can be helpful. You could also elicit important information by asking about an anxious silence without forcing him to answer the question: “Can you help me understand why school is so hard to talk about?” or “I wonder what you’re feeling now?” Reflective statements (checking in about emotion), paraphrasing (checking in about brief content) and summaries (checking in about larger pieces of content) can help keep everyone focused and clarify information.

Sometimes children seem to contradict themselves and it might feel hard to address this in a way that doesn’t sound judgmental or chastising. Gentle, curious language here is key: “Earlier you said you love your mom but then you said you didn’t want to visit her. Help me understand/tell me more about that.”

Allow for flexibility in the interview. Know the basic pieces of information you want to explore and then as much as possible go where the child goes in the conversation. If you have fifty specific questions you want to get answered in one meeting you may end up sitting with a clammed-up kid and a blank notepad.

Regardless of age, children want to feel respected, valued, and heard. No matter what tips or techniques you follow, a child will know through your nonverbals if you are coming from a place of interest, caring, and respect. Pay attention to what your body language and facial expressions are conveying and avoid distracting mannerisms.

The above general guidelines sometimes need to be refined for a particular developmental level. For instance, you are more likely to suggest a game of Go-Fish to a five year-old than to a sixteen year-old. In fact, for a mature adolescent you may choose to forego the games completely and find another way to create a safe, comfortable atmosphere – perhaps just through honest conversation and treating them as an adult. In general, the younger the child the more they communicate through their bodies, play, and art.

Three to five year-olds tend to be the most suggestible and most likely to try to comply with adult requests, so avoid leading questions. They are likely to have trouble sequencing events and can confuse fantasy with reality. Their tendency towards black-and-white thinking affects their view of events as they are more likely to see people as all-good or all-bad. Their egocentric minds might assume others know what they’re thinking so you may need to encourage elaboration with this age group. Use short, concrete, probing questions to help them expound upon their account and internal experience. Engage the child in play or art.

Six to eleven year-olds are more able to verbally share their internal and external experience and show some more logical thinking about it. They understand cause and effect better. They are more able to see the greys in life and understand social inconsistencies. However, they also are more aware of social norms and mores and tend towards rule-bound reasoning. This gives rise to strong feelings and beliefs around fairness. In addition to the general suggestions above, engaging the school-age child in a structured game may help build rapport.

Teenagers are even more capable of complex thinking around relationships and cause-and-effect. They can provide more accurate information about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences than younger children. As adolescents move closer to adulthood they may have a greater need for feedback that what they say is important to the interviewer. They are also more likely to have a greater need for privacy, so being clear about confidentiality (including limits) is important.

Studies show that using culturally appropriate eye contact, minimal encouragers (uh huh, go on), demonstrating appropriate empathy, and not interrupting the child help them open up more. And of course after helping them open up you want to appropriately close the interview so that they’re not left feeling vulnerable and alone. At the end of the interview, give them age-appropriate information about what happens next, ask them to share questions or concerns, and thank them for talking with you.