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"Adults and children don't speak the same language," said forensic linguist Anne Graffam Walker, PhD, at the 11th National Conference on Children and the Law. So the best advice is to keep conversations with children short and simple, she said. Walker offered several tips for psychologists, social workers and attorneys who talk with children about potential instances of abuse to ensure smooth communication:

  • Tell children you need their help. Young children, particularly those under six, assume adults know everything they know, Walker said. Walker advises telling children to disclose all, even if they think you already know it.

  • Be specific. Pronouns such as "it" can create confusion, she said. Repeat proper names and places to make sure everyone understands.

  • Beware of complex words or homographs. Walker mentioned one case where a child refused to testify because he thought by "swearing to tell the truth" he would get in trouble for cursing.

  • Avoid negative questions. Using simple negatives such as "no" and "not" in your question increases the chance of an incorrect answer by at least 50 percent in children ages four to 10.

  • Be silent. Children take 1.9 times as long as adults to process oral information. Wait as long as 10 seconds after a child finishes an answer, Walker advises. Often, children will provide additional information.

--M. GREER