South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Children's secrets

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In many cases of child sexual abuse, as noted earlier, children have been instructed by the abuser not to disclose the incident. Therefore, children''s propensity to report the transgression of an adult male who asked them to keep the transgression secret was investigated. 46 Three and five-year-old children witnessed the adult breaking a "prized" glass and hiding the broken pieces to conceal his misdeed. The adult asked the children not to tell the female interviewer about what had happened. The results revealed that when children three and five years ears of age weresimply asked not to tell on the adult, more of the three-year-olds (86 per cent) than the five-year-olds (57 per cent) disclosed the transgression. It is instructive to note that some of the three-year-olds (14 per cent) and quite a large percentage of the five-year-olds (43 per cent) did not disclose the event.

Overall, however, one of the most reliable findings to emerge from these studies was that three-year-olds were more likely to disclose negative events than five-year-olds. 47 These findings are consistent with the false belief data. 48 A great deal of research supports the view thatthree-year-olds are not very good at solving false belief tasks. That is, three-year-olds have difficulty attributing a false belief to others and instead believe that others perceive the world as they perceive it, that is, as it really is. For example, when presented with a box of Smarties and askedwhat is inside, both three and five-year-old children say, "Smarties". After looking in the box, and discovering that it contains pencils, not Smarties, children are asked what another child who has not opened the box would say it contained. The five- -year-olds typically say "Smarties", while the three-year-olds say "pencils". Based on the results of these studies, children would not be expected to keep secrets, since they lack the understanding of either themselves or others having a false belief. If three-year-olds believe that the interviewer is privy to all information known to themselves, there is no reason to try and withhold it.

Clearly, the more capable children are of understanding concealment and deception, the more they are capable of keeping secrets and behaving in a deceptive way, and the more they are capable of intentionally withholding disclosure of abuse. Younger children, however, who have a more limited understanding of false belief, are less able to intentionally withhold information. They are unlikely to realise and anticipate that they might get into trouble for reporting negative information. They aretherefore unlikely to withhold the information and induce a false belief in others who may suspect abuse. Yet, if the negative sanctions for disclosing the secret are more salient and immediate, even three-year-olds'' secret keeping is affected. This is illustrated in a study by Bottoms, Goodman, Schwartz-Kenney, Sachsenmaier and Thomas who found that disclosure of information by five and six-year-olds varied as a function of instruction by their mothers. 49 Specifically, when mothers engaged their children in play with a prohibited set of toys and asked their children to keep this a secret, fewer children spontaneously reported the activities than did children who were permitted to play with the toys and whose mothers did not ask their children to keep this a secret. The younger children, three and four-year-olds in that study, were unaffected by the request to keep the information secret. However, for a very salient event, such as the mother accidentally breaking and hiding a Barbie doll, only one out of the 49 children in the study (that is, across all age groups) spontaneously reported what had happened. Apparently, little pressure is needed to silence children when adults attempt to cover up their mistakes or transgressions. In this case, the distress of the mothers and hiding the broken Barbie doll may have signalled to the children that the breakage needed to be kept secret. Therefore, for children who are sexually abused, it is possible that the more concern they feel for the alleged transgressor, the more serious the transgression, and the greater the threat for reporting the abuse, the more likely even three -year-olds would be to comply with the transgressor''s request or demand not to report the event. 50 Moreover, the conditions under which they are questioned might also affect their propensity to report it.

The implications of these issues for the interviewing of young children are critically important. For the very young child who may not have the capability for mentally representing the negative consequences for disclosure, it may only be in the perpetrator''s presence or when interviewed by a stem interviewer that they will intentionally withhold the reporting of abuse. Hence, it is essential that the interviewing is conducted in a highly supportive environment. But there are some cautions here; the interviewer must not rely on leading questions that require "Yes/No" answers. Because children will be highly attuned to the positive affective reactions of adults. the entire interview must be conducted in a positive environment with neutral intonation, and the child must know that they can report any kind of information without negative consequences resulting.

The important point to be stressed is that interviewers have a significant role to play in helping to facilitate children''s disclosure of secretive material, especially when it is another adult who has sworn them to secrecy. Supportive interviewing conditions are essential for children to report sensitive information, free of suggestive questions so that children do not need to contradict adults.

From the social cognitive theory perspective, with cognitive maturity children are more able to regulate their secret keeping. Once they have this capacity, other issues are important in the facilitation of children''s disclosure of secrets.

In a recent study in which children of five, seven, nine and 12 years were asked about whether or not they would keep a good, bad or embarrassing secret, different factors affected their secret keeping and telling. 51 The most important result to emerge from this study was that five-year-old children''s secret keeping was solely determined by external factors, that is, whether or not they anticipated getting into trouble for keeping or telling secrets. Older children''s secret keeping was, however, regulated not only by external factor, but also'' by how they expected to feel about such disclosure.

A striking finding in this study concerned embarrassing secrets. These secrets are important because they are similar to secrets about sexual abuse. Most notably, the three older age groups of children anticipated strong negative self reactions for the disclosure of embarrassing secrets but did not anticipate self-disapproval for keeping such secrets. These results indicate that from seven years of age onwards. from the child''s perspective, it may be less traumatic not to disclose than to disclose embarrassing information. In contrast, for the five-year-olds, fear of punishment was likely to prevent disclosure of all types of secrets. Consequently, procedures that reduce the embarrassment of reporting sexual abuse for children beyond seven years, and reduce the fear of punishment for younger children, are necessary to facilitate accurate and truthful reporting.

In sum, the urgent goal of future research is to develop better interviewing strategies that do not influence children''s memory of their experiences either wittingly or unwittingly. These strategies need to allow and encourage secret disclosure without increasing false allegations. Lack of suggestive interviewing is essential for the courts to accept children evidence at trial, and not dismiss it as unreliable if it is subjected to a taint hearing. It is essential that children are neither unwittingly nor wittingly confused by suggestive interviewing practices about their experiences and thereby rendered vulnerable to either believing interviewers'' or even parents'' accounts of events rather than their own, or lying about their experiences because of pressures from others.

Consequently, it is argued that children''s reporting of accurate and truthful information is as much a function of the type of questions they are asked and the context in which the disclosure occurs as it is of their own memory of the experienced event. The disclosure process is difficult, and by focusing exclusively on children''s vulnerabilities, without questioning the adequacy of the methods and procedures used by those who interview child witnesses, it is unlikely that the reliability of children''s evidence will be increased. It is essential that research is conducted to establish more effective ways to interview child witnesses so that true and accurate disclosures are promoted when abuse has occurred, without simultaneously increasing false allegations of abuse when it has not occurred and false denials when it has occurred. Children need to appreciate the gravity of their allegations and the importance of truth telling. Without better interview methods, it is unlikely that Justice will be served for either the alleging victims or alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse.


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