For Specialists

How to build rapport with children in the hearing?

Hearing minors who have been victims of sexual abuse or other types of violence is a constant challenge for investigators. On the one hand, there is a need for knowledge about the developmental level and understanding of children, depending on their age, and on the other hand, there is a need to use interpersonal skills with children so that they feel comfortable enough to talk about intimate subjects such as possible abuse.

There is an essential emotional component to the process of interviewing minors and, therefore, building the relationship between the investigator and the child or young person to be interviewed must precede discussions of abuse.

To understand how important this is, you can do an exercise in imagination: Think about what it would be like for you if a stranger you have just met started asking you, in a direct way, about very intimate aspects of your life. You don’t know him, you don’t understand exactly what he wants from you or what his intentions are. How do you feel? What do you feel like doing? How much would you share about yourself and your personal life? Take the time to put yourself in this position and give yourself honest answers.

Another way to put yourself in the shoes of a child who has to answer intimate questions about their life is to identify situations in your experience where you have had to talk about personal issues (an example might be a visit to the doctor). What was the experience like? Perhaps you’ve had a specialist who greeted you coldly and asked you direct questions without making a connection with you (by smiling, shaking hands, etc.) or perhaps you’ve had, on the contrary, someone who made you feel welcome and made you feel comfortable before offering details about intimate aspects of your life. What has/hasn’t that specialist offered you so that you can share more about yourself/feel you can’t open up enough?

A significant number of children are reluctant to disclose abuse at the hearing. Establishing a rapport with them before introducing the topic of abuse can facilitate communication between child and investigator and have beneficial effects on children’s ability to disclose potentially traumatic experiences.

Social support provided by investigators, in the form of non-suggestive support, can have the following positive effects on children who are interviewed in the context of suspected abuse:

  • feel more comfortable, trust the investigator more and reveal more;
  • they show better memory performance, providing relevant information;
  • provide more accurate accounts;
  • they are not misled by certain questions and are less sensitive to potential suggestion by interviewers.

Support can be identified when you address the child by name – “Now, Ana, tell me more about what happened” – or when you offer neutral reinforcement, unrelated to the content of the child’s response – “You’re doing well”. Support can also be felt through the interest you show in the child’s experiences, both verbally – “I want to hear about what happened to you” – and non-verbally – body posture leaning towards the child, smiling, eye contact.

The more supportive words investigators use, the more information they can get from children. This is especially true for less communicative children who are older (7-9 years). Unfortunately, it is often the case that investigators withdraw support from those children who need more support to open up.

There is no evidence that (non-suggestive) support in the hearing of minors would be harmful. However, while social support has beneficial effects in the hearing of minors, even if this is not always the case, the harmful effects of intimidating conditions are much more obvious. Lack of support, lack of a friendly attitude and intimidating questions make children less willing to disclose abuse and provide details of their experience.

The NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) Protocol is a tool designed to help investigators maximize the amount of information obtained in the hearing of minors. This protocol provides structured guidelines for all stages of hearings: the preliminary stage, the main stage, the disclosure stage, and the closing stage. In the preliminary stage, open-ended questions and invitations are included to facilitate relationship building between the child and the investigator.

Using the NICHD Protocol, it was shown that an open style of relationship building was associated with more information resulting from free recall of the alleged abuse. What does this mean? It means that open suggestions and encouragement offered during the hearing help children to more easily access information from memory and provide the investigator with more details about the abuse. Through an open relationship, the child is given a central role in the interaction, is told that their experiences are a valuable source of information and that they are listened to carefully. In this way, the child is empowered for their role in the listening and at the same time understands what is expected of them and what specific level of detail is needed.

The length of time it takes to build the relationship is also an important aspect. There is no strict recommendation on this, but the length of time should be tailored to each individual situation and should be based on the child’s level of commitment and cooperation. The effort invested in building the relationship with the child should continue until the child is ready to talk about unpleasant experiences in his/her life.

A longer process of relationship building can be beneficial with those children who are less comfortable or hesitant to provide information about the abuse they have suffered.

Allowing too much time for relationship building can also be counterproductive, as cognitive resources and attentional capacity are limited, and effective listening must ensure that children’s attention is maintained throughout the listening process. Thus, too much time spent in the relationship building stage can lead to a significant decrease in children’s ability to respond effectively to the cognitive demands of the main listening stage. At the same time, a longer process of relationship building may have the effect of decreasing the investigator’s effort during questioning and may be associated with the use of fewer open-ended prompts and questions, which will reduce the amount of information obtained. Instead, a shorter relationship-building process may be associated with certain factors that facilitate an open attitude of the child: using more encouragement and reducing investigator interventions.

It’s worth noting that the lowest rates of child disclosure are reported in the most severe cases of abuse, so where it would be most important for children to talk. It is vital to build a relationship of trust with investigators so that these children can be helped to disclose abuse. It takes a high number of free recall prompts, open-ended helpful questions, encouragement and building children’s confidence and engagement. The risk of children not opening up sufficiently can be predicted from the preliminary stage, depending on the degree to which they provide detailed answers. This risk must be addressed by making an extra effort to improve the relationship with the child before moving on to explore the alleged abuse. At the same time, it is important to check the involvement and cooperation of children throughout the interview process, not just at the initial stage, so that the level of authenticity and complexity of the statements given by children can be ascertained.

When children are reluctant, investigators sometimes feel frustrated and react using counterproductive strategies. Most often they withdraw their support. To combat the use of this method, it is necessary to access empathy by informing them of the many sources of emotional stress children experience, the consequences of the types of abuse on them and understanding their pressing need for support.

There is also a concern that by showing empathy and offering support, investigators might attract criticism (e.g. in court) because it may seem like a suggestive practice: children want to please investigators and therefore provide information they would like investigators to hear. To avoid such interpretations, a neutral, non-suggestive style of giving support is recommended.

Example of non-suggestive support:

  • Child’s greeting: ‘Nice to meet you’;
  • expressing personal interest in the child: “I really want to meet you”;
  • expressing concern: “Your well-being is important to me”;
  • checking the child’s feelings: “How are you/are you feeling now?”
  • reinforcement: “You help me to understand”;
  • small, kind gestures: “Would you like a glass of water?”;
  • thanks and appreciation: “I really appreciate your effort”.

Examples of non-suggestive support when the child expresses difficulty disclosing abuse:

  • empathy: “I know it’s difficult for you to talk”;
  • legitimising expressions: “It’s OK to use these bad words here”;
  • generalising the child’s difficulties: “Many children feel ashamed at first”;
  • expressing confidence/optimism: “You can do it!”;
  • reassurance: “No one will arrest you”;
  • offering help: “What could help you to tell the story?”.



Michael E. Lamb, David J. La Rooy, Lindsay C. Malloy, Carmit Katz (2011). Child’s testimony. Psychological research and legal practice. ASCR Publishing House, Cluj-Napoca, 2018