Going to court can be a fearful experience for anyone, especially children. Even with that, testifying in court can have some positive benefits for many victims regardless of their age. Some children may feel empowered by having the opportunity to tell what happened to them and/or to feel like their voice or their story is important. While being nervous before court is common and the norm for just about anyone, there are some things to keep in mind when helping children get ready for court and feel less frightened or overwhelmed.
It is not a good idea to discuss the incident in detail or over and over again with the child. While it might seem that this will help lower a child’s comfort level, it may in fact do the opposite. Children don’t disclose the same way adults do. They often tell bits and pieces in their own time and in their own way. Trying to assist them to tell their story can actually force them to relive the incident when they may not feel ready or able to cope and as a result, create or magnify issues related to trauma. Another point to keep in mind is that a defense attorney may use frequent discussions about the incident as proof that the child is being “coached” and therefore shouldn’t be believed.
Teach some basic, simple strategies for lowering anxiety. Grounding and relaxation techniques can come in handy when anyone, adult or child, starts to feel overwhelmed, fearful or anxious while having to answer questions. Keep in mind that the techniques should be developmentally appropriate and ones that the child feels comfortable using. Sometimes they may need to learn them in advance so that they can practice them in other settings where they get stressed to see if they’ll work. A child therapist can help with this if needed.
Offer support and encouragement. It is important for kids to get the message that the truth is the most important thing and that it is okay to say you’re confused or that you don’t know the answer. Kids are very ‘hard-wired’ to answer an adult’s questions, even if they’re not sure because they’re taught to answer when asked. As a result, kids also need a lot of reassurance that saying “I don’t know” is okay and not going to get them in trouble or make others mad at them. Validate their choice in disclosing and telling their story and always tell them that you believe them (more than once).
As hard as it may seem, having a good breakfast and taking time to dress in clothing that is comfortable are both important. Most people, children included, are nervous on the day of court even with preparation. Offer positive and supportive messages. Having a morning routine and a plan for the day can help with the anxiety. It’s important to know that court is often delayed and the wait can sometimes be long for unexpected reasons. Bring activities and even snacks in order to pass the time as comfortably as possible.
If you’re an adult that is permitted to be in the room when a child is testifying, please remember to remain quiet and respectful and not to motion or signal the child, even if you’re trying to encourage them. That may cause issues in court with you the adult being accused of influencing the child’s testimony.
Children look to adults to see how they should react. That means, how you cope and react will tell the child what they feel they need to know about how things went or how they did. Remain supportive and encouraging and for many adults, this also means controlling your emotions while in front of the child.
Most children seem to recover from testifying with no issues. If for whatever reason a child remains anxious and stressed and/or seems to feel the experience was negative or they did something wrong, please contact a local child therapist to help the child work through whatever issues have arisen.
For more information, please visit; Victim Witness Assistance Program