What is it about?

The way that children define the word "touch," and their descriptions of touching, can have important implications when children are asked about abusive touch during child sexual abuse investigations. In our laboratory experiment, we found that 4- to 7-year-old children define "touch" as only touching done with the hand, excluding touch with other body parts (e.g., kissing with the mouth) and object touch (e.g., poking with a stick). Eight- to nine-year-old children include both touching with the hand and other body parts in their definitions of "touch," but exclude object touch. In addition, the way we ask children questions about touch, either asking them yes-or-no questions (e.g., Is the boy touching the girl?) or open-ended questions (e.g., What is happening in this picture?) can influence their touch descriptions.

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Why is it important?

Children are frequently asked about suspected sexual abuse using the word "touch" (e.g., "Did someone touch you in a way that you didn't like?"). Our study found that children up to 7-years-old might deny that "touching" occurred if a perpetrator used a body part other than the hand (e.g., a mouth or genitalia), and children up to 9-years-old might deny that "touching" occurred if a perpetrator used an object. Denials that abusive touch occurred may be even more likely when children are asked yes-or-no questions.

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This page is a summary of: Children's underextended understanding of touch., Psychology Public Policy and Law, October 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/law0000374.
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