For Professionals

The effect of psychological trauma on the effectiveness of a questioning/interview
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Psychological trauma and memory

What are the factors which have an influence on a traumatised child during a questioning/interview? Could these factors influence the child’s memory and their suggestibility?

As Eisen & Goodman (1998) explain, the general concept of ‘trauma’ is a contentious one amongst expert, although most of them agree on some main areas.

A trauma is usually an experience which:

a) Threatens the individual’s health and well-being;
b) Leaves the individual helpless against a grave threat, and provokes agitation and instinctive agitation;
c) Constrains the individual’s survival instinct;
d) Disturbs the main ideas related to survival;
e) Makes the individual see the world as uncontrollable and unforeseeable.

Generally, when the stress level is moderate at the moment when it’s experienced, afterwards it is possible to activate our ability to realistically remember what happened. However, if the stress level is extremely high or extremely low, this could negatively influence our ability to restore our memories. This generalisation is acceptable, but a number of other factors must be taken into account, which also have an influence on our memory – for example depression, our individual method of overcoming difficulty, and our feelings of attachment (Gordon and others 2001).

When in a state of strong agitation, which is related to a traumatic experience, it is possible for our attention span to shorten. This means that our sensory perception becomes limited and only registers direct threats. This is why a child remembers one central object or a strikingly fearful detail more easily and why information on other details is more limited.

When discussing the effect of trauma and stress on a child’s memory, physiological factors, alongside psychological ones, must be taken into account. For example, chronic stress can affect a child’s brain development and cause its structure to change. This is especially important when we are dealing with children who are victims of chronic abuse or neglect.

Fear as a response

During the first stages of evolution, when faced with the feeling of fear, humans had two choices – protect their position and fight the source of threat, or stay still in one place with the hope that the source of the threat goes away by itself. The preparation to respond to a possible threat also manifests itself in the body’s physiological reactions. For example, blood pressure rises, the heartbeat quickens, the blood is pumped at a faster rate to the arms and legs to activate the necessary muscles. Hormones are also released to keep us on high alert in face of any possible threat.

What can happen to a child physiologically and psychologically when they are the victims of abuse or threats of abuse and how can the child’s brain reacts in these types of situations?

When facing an imminent threat, the parts of the brain which deal with such dangerous and unpredictable events are engaged and activated. A child’s brain and body work together to allow them to fight for survival. The brain sends signals to the body to release more adrenaline, which allow the child to be stronger, faster and more alert. With cases of abuse, children are often so highly sensitive to threatening or unpredictable events, that they find dangers in situations where there are none. In cases like these, the hormone cortisol is released in the child’s body to decrease the level of adrenaline, which was previously released and is circulating around the body.

When a child lives under constant threat, this process is often repeated. Therefore, a high amount of cortisol gets stored up in the body, which has a toxic effect on the functioning of certain neurone zones and causes them to die. This damages their logical reasoning and behaviour, and their ability to manage emotions and control impulses.

A number of studies have also revealed that the level of cortisol in younger children increases when their mother is depressed, or extremely exhausted emotionally and physically. This in itself badly affects a developing child.

Children of abuse are also in a state of hyper-agitation. A child can become so sensitive that even the smallest things, which other children would find harmless, invoke fear in them. Child victims of abuse are so highly alert that they constantly ‘catch’ non-verbal signs from other people which could hint to a potential imminent threat. These children are so used to being in unpredictable situations, that they cannot ‘turn off’ their psychological defence mechanisms, even when they are in a safe environment.

This must be taken account when questioning/interviewing a child. Professionals who question/interview a child often manage to reduce stress and anxiety inducing factors to a certain degree. However, even though they may try to show the child that they are calm, there is always a chance that their own nervousness or anxiety can ‘seep through’ their non-verbal communications. Victims of child abuse can perceive these signs incorrectly as indicators of some inevitable danger. Consequently, this influences the child’s abilities to listen, understand, remember and coherently recount during a questioning/interview process.

In cases like these, the best thing for a questioner/interviewer to do would be to emphasize their support and goodwill towards the child. Although, it is possible that this will have no effect on the child, and that they will continue to be highly alert, on edge and to feel in danger. The questioner/interviewer may (subconsciously) think that the child is not reacting to their effort. The result could be such that the questioner/interviewer’s feelings ‘seep out’ to such an extent that the child’s fears become intensified.

A cycle of such behaviour between the child and the questioner/interviewer could cause a rift in their interaction and lead to the child becoming completely ‘closed up’. To avoid this from happening, one of the things which the questioner/interviewer can do is to realise that they should have no expectations for how the child reacts to their expressions of support and goodwill. Acknowledging this will mean that their possible disappointment with the child’s reaction can be replaced with empathy and their connection with the child can be sustained. It is also possible for the questioner/interviewer to tell the child that whenever they feel threatened or tense they may signal this by putting up their hand. When necessary, the interviewer/questioner can take the initiative to stop or postpone the questioning/interview.

This all comes to prove that it is necessary for the questioner/interviewer to find out as much as possible, before starting the questioning/interview, about the child’s relationships in other circumstances, such as those in the family, in school, outside of school or during their visit to the doctor. This is especially important in cases where it is suspected that the child was a victim of chronic abuse in the past or that they have experienced multiple psychological traumas.

By Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)