Adolescents: Big Children or Little Adults?
Updated: Feb 5
Decades of research demonstrates that children are not miniature versions of adults. As early as the late 18th century, reformers in the United States advocated treating delinquent youth differently than adult criminals because they recognized that youths’ characters are not fully developed. While consideration of child victims’ developmental differences came arguably much later than youth offenders, high profile criminal cases in the 1980’s and 1990’s (e.g., McMartin preschool trial; see (Cheit, 2014) highlighted many of the risks of ignoring differences between children and adults in legal settings. An abundance of research followed, and consequently, tremendous improvements have been made in adapting protocols for interviewing alleged child victims so that children’s developmental, communicative, and motivational differences are considered (Lamb et al., 2018; Lyon, 2014). Research continues to identify techniques that improve children’s accounts, including giving instructions (e.g., that encourage children to express incomprehension or ignorance), building rapport, and offering non-suggestive support (Lamb et al., 2018). By eliciting complete, coherent, and accurate accounts from children (that are untouched by suggestive influences), we are better able to discern the veracity of children’s accounts and, consequently, execute justice.
However, our work is incomplete. We continue to identify a litany of potential sources of miscommunication when questioning children, such as their struggles to express incomprehension or describe partial clothing placement. Research shows that children are more likely to answer nonsensical questions than adults (Waterman et al., 2000), they seldom seek clarification when they do not understand, and concerningly, when younger children do express incomprehension, it may be misinterpreted by interviewers (Henderson & Lyon, 2020). Additionally, in sexual abuse allegations, it is critical to discern whether clothing was displaced in order to determine the severity of sexual touching. Often, researchers will elicit these details by asking, ‘were your clothes on or off?’ However, this question severely misconstrues the intricacies of these cases, as clothing is frequently partially on the body (e.g., pants are on but pulled down). Research shows that children rarely (only 7-11%) accurately describe partial clothing placement when asked ‘were your clothes on or off?’ because they simply choose one of the options provided by the interviewer (Wylie et al., 2020).
Even more concerningly, one sector of youth victims has been largely overlooked, namely adolescent victims. The majority of research exploring the effectiveness of interviewing tactics focuses on children (Mean age = 6.9-9.7 years old; Blasbalg et al., 2018; Orbach & Lamb, 2007). Similarly to how children are not miniature adults, adolescents are neither ‘big kids’ nor ‘little adults.’ Age significantly affects the quantity and quality of memories encoded into memory. Additionally, as children grow, their abilities to describe certain aspects of their allegations increase, thereby improving the completeness and descriptiveness of their accounts (Lamb et al., 2018). Hence, research should consider how to ensure the effectiveness of certain interviewing protocols, such as instructions and scripted rapport building, with adolescent victims. Critically, effectiveness should be defined not only as increasing the accuracy and productivity of the account, but also contributing to (or at least not detracting from) rapport with the adolescent victim.
Although cooperative adolescents may provide more complete accounts than children, adolescents are also different in ways that could make them more difficult to interview, particularly if they are reluctant. Adolescence is a distinct developmental period where individuals undergo neurological changes that significantly impact motivations and behaviors (Cauffman & Steinberg, 2012). Adolescents may have different motivations for non-disclosure than younger children, such as fear of stigmatization, reluctance to burden their parents, or fear of dismantling the family unit. Because adolescents are peer-focused and impulsive, they may have been abused in situations where they erroneously blame themselves (e.g., situations involving alcohol). Adolescents are also more cognitively savvy, so if they are reluctant, they are likely better able to evade interviewers’ questions and avoid disclosing critical details. Little is known about how adolescents engage in forensic interviews or the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of interviewing strategies frequently employed with child victims. The field now recognizes that children are not miniature adults, and should not be treated as such. I believe the same recognition should be paid for adolescent victims. When we fail to consider the distinct developmental differences of adolescent victims, we are hampering our abilities to best communicate with them. I believe that their stories are worth hearing.
Dr. Hayden Henderson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of Southern California working with Thomas Lyon in the Child Investigative Interviewing Lab. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge under Michael Lamb, examining the effectiveness of the Section 28 pilot study (Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act).
Blasbalg, U., Hershkowitz, I., & Karni-Visel, Y. (2018). Support, reluctance, and production in child abuse investigative interviews. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24, 518 –527. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000183
Cauffman, E., & Steinberg, L. (2012). Emerging findings from research on adolescent development and juvenile justice. Victims & Offenders, 7, 428-449. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2012.713901
Cheit, R. E. (2014). The witch-hunt narrative: Politics, psychology, and the sexual abuse of children: Oxford University Press.
Henderson, H. M., & Lyon, T. D. (2020). Children’s Signaling of Incomprehension: The Diagnosticity of Practice Questions During Interview Instructions. Child Maltreatment, 1077559520971350.
Lamb, M. E., Brown, D. A., Hershkowitz, I., Orbach, Y., & Esplin, P. W. (2018). Tell me what happened: Questioning children about abuse (2nd Edition). Wiley- Blackwell. Hoboken, NY.
Lyon, T. D. (2014). Interviewing children. Annual Review of Law & Social Science, 10, 73–89. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-110413-030913
Orbach, Y., & Lamb, M. E. (2007). Young children’s references to temporal attributes of allegedly experienced events in the course of forensic interviews. Child Development, 78, 1100-1120. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01055.x
Waterman, A. H., Blades, M., & Spencer, C. (2000). Do children try to answer nonsensical questions? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 18, 211-225. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151000165652
Wylie, B., Stolzenberg, S. N., McWilliams, K., Evans, A. D., & Lyon, T. D. (2020). Young children’s ability to describe intermediate clothing placement. Child Maltreatment, 1077559520930825.