Marty Beyer, Ph.D.

    The primary factor compromising the quality of interviews of teenagers in juvenile and family court is the conflict between the adult's information-gathering agenda and the teenager's desires to be liked and to finish the interview. This conflict is exacerbated by limited time and interview settings that lack privacy.       

    Successful interviewing relies on the interviewer taking responsibility for reducing the teenager’s anxiety and for building trust. Since adolescents tend to be egocentric, they doubt that others can really understand their unique experience. In addition, it is normal for teenagers to process questions differently than older individuals, feel defensive when identity-related issues are raised, and mistrust adults. Teenagers with attention problems and/or trauma-related reactivity are even more challenging to interview.    

    A common mistake is assuming that the interviewers' good intentions will get things off to a positive start with the teenager.  Being a friendly person with an interest in what the young person has to say does not guarantee a successful interview. This is not because the young person is "being difficult," although unresponsiveness to a friendly interviewer is frequently misinterpreted as a lack of cooperation. The success of the first few minutes of the interview are determined by the interviewer doing whatever it takes to put the adolescent at ease.

    Interviews with young people are likely to be more successful if you:

  • Follow the adolescent's lead
    Encourage the young person to tell his/her own story without interruption. If you are patient, many of your questions will be answered without putting the teenager on the spot. Be an attentive listener: nod in agreement and make encouraging comments. Body language that is calm and conveys openness increases relaxation, which helps the teenager tell his/her story. Avoid being controlling.
  • Recognize the young person's strengths
    Talking about what he/she (and the family) does well usually gets the teenager more involved in the interview.
  • Do not take the teenager's behavior personally
    Do not assume an adolescent is being uncooperative. He/she may not communicate easily with adults. He/she may be responding with fear to an unfamiliar and threatening situation. His/her initial lack of trust may be the result of past victimization.
  • Listen to the young person’s interests
    Many youth in family and juvenile court are different in race, culture and class (and often gender) from the interviewer. Avoid putting your frame on the interview and instead learn about what the young person is an expert on: videogames, MySpace, sports, music, etc. You don’t have to share this interest to be attentive, and it will make the young person less anxious to talk about what they know. Don't talk much about yourself.


    Successful interviewing requires empathy: being able to stand in the shoes of the teenager. To be empathic, the interviewer has to tune out reactions to the adolescent's presentation. Adults cannot accurately interpret the statements made by the teenager's clothing, jewelry, "attitude," tattoos, mannerisms, or style of talking. Empathy relies on skillful listening for the young person's feelings and unique way of thinking. Simple comments such as "That must have been frustrating" validate the young person's struggles and communicate empathy.


    Do not make assumptions about whether the young person would prefer a same-sex or opposite sex interviewer. Past betrayal by and/or closeness to a male or female may be most influential regarding their anxiety. Girls tend to be relationship-focused, so they may be most concerned about whether you really care or are going to continue to be involved with her. Girls’ stories are embedded in their relationships, so being attentive about important people they talk about (and omit) is a necessary part of empathic listening.

    Be aware that youth are in various stages of awareness and comfort with their sexual orientation and gender identity. Use respectful and inclusive terminology that does not make assumptions about sexual orientation or gender identity (don’t ask a boy about his girlfriend or a girl about her boyfriend, which assumes heterosexuality). Do not push a young person to come out to you; if they do, be careful not to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to family, friends, the court or outside agencies without the youth’s explicit permission. Call transgender youth by the first name and pronoun they want (regardless of whether their name has been legally changed). Sensitively inquire about the youth’s of being picked on in school, at home, in the foster home, group home, detention or other facility..


    Do not expect an adolescent interviewed in a family or juvenile court context to engage in the typical give-and-take of adults.

    Most adults believe that when you inquire about their work, hobbies, or family, you are trying to get to know them by searching for something similar in your lives. Adolescents, when questioned by persons in authority, may assume that there is no common ground between them. They expect adults to be judgmental, even if they appear friendly. Teenagers assume questioning will expose something bad about them.

    Many young people do not process questions quickly. Questions that are long, provide information that has to be digested before answering, or give more than one option confuse teenagers who have auditory processing problems, difficulty paying attention, or low intelligence. Direct, simple, short questions using basic words are more easily processed. Clarifying an answer by presenting two choices may be understood if they are clearly distinguished. For example, "Earlier you said you were scared when that happened. Now it sounds like you are saying you were angry." Some young people understand better if simple visual props are used and some can demonstrate what happened more effectively than they can verbalize it (for example, putting each point on a separate note card in front of you and the young person to refer to or asking the young person to make a drawing of the scene while telling their story). Avoid asking for abstract thinking. Avoid analogies: even if you both like basketball, it may be that the young person plays by such different rules that he/she will not be able to understand your basketball analogy. If you have followed the adolescent's lead in the interview, his/her own narrative will give you an idea of how he/she processes information, how he/she makes choices, and understandable examples you can use.

    Adults often consider direct eye contact friendly, but young people may feel they are being stared at or challenged. On the other hand, looking into the young person's eyes while smiling can be a way to convey that you are listening. There are no clearcut rules about eye contact: be aware of how you are looking at the adolescent and how he/she is responding and adjust accordingly.  Providing young people with something to do with their hands during the interview--such as drawing or doodling, playing with a toy (silly putty, magnets, balancing toys, balls) or eating a snack--may give them an opportunity to make eye contact at their own pace. Doing something with their hands is relaxing and can help young people who have difficulty concentrating maintain their interest in the interview.

    Another mistake is assuming that if the interviewer apologizes genuinely for having a lack of time, the teenager should be able to work efficiently on the interviewer's priority. Many young people do not think the interviewer is really interested in listening to them if he/she tries to cover factual questions as quickly as possible. Teenagers are fairness fanatics, and even when the interviewer has no control over how short their time together is, they are likely to feel cheated and resentful.

    Similarly, even when an interviewer expresses honest regrets about being unable to talk with the young person in a private room, the young person is likely to continue to feel self-conscious or unwilling to expose secrets throughout an interview conducted in a hallway, a public area in a detention center or courthouse, or an office where room dividers do not go up to the ceiling.  Adults may take it for granted that a guard or office partner should not share confidential information, but the young person might be assuming everything could be used against him/her.

    Don't ask questions that can be answered with a yes, no, okay, or shrug.

    This is a tricky part of getting information from young people. You want to draw out their answers.  It is difficult to invent interesting follow-up questions after a yes, no, okay, or shrug. Questions like "How's school going?" or "When was the last time you saw your father?" or "Did you hit so-and-so?" will usually get one-syllable answers. Skilled interviewers have success making statements or open-ended questions that invite a longer answer.  Try instead: "What subject are you best in at school," followed by "That's a really hard subject --what do you like best about it?" or "What's the most fun you can remember having with your father?" followed by an inviting comment about the positives in their relationship.


    Don't start questions with Why or How could you.

    These questions provoke defensiveness. The teenager does not hear them as  friendly or exploratory. Questions that start with Why or How could you convey judgment even if the interviewer does not feel accusatory.



Why were you out after curfew?
It must be hard to get in by curfew.

How could you hang out again with your co-defendant in the last case?
This friend of yours seems to like to get you in trouble.

Why is your school attendance so bad?
There must be something about school that makes you not want to go.

Why were you carrying a knife?
Tell me what you were thinking when you put the knife in your waistband.


Why and How could you questions go much further than collecting information --they challenge the young person's identity. The interviewer does not intend these questions to be critical and may be surprised when he/she suddenly closes up.  Teenagers react strongly when someone implies they should not dress in a certain way or do an activity that defines them as part of a group. Furthermore, they are likely to be loyal to family and friends and get much angrier than an adult would when something negative is implied about people important to them (even if those individuals have abused or neglected them or are known substance abusers or criminals).


    Ask questions when you do not understand.

    It is not offensive to clarify. Many teenagers use terms or phrases the interviewer will not understand. If a young person uses a word in a way that seems out of context, it may be slang unknown to the interviewer. For example, if the young person is talking quickly and says "He stole her and ran outside," the interviewer may be unfamiliar with "stole" meaning "hit."  Without being judgmental about slang, the interviewer can say, "Tell me (or show me) what he did before he went outside." Reflection is another inoffensive way of clarifying: "Tell me if I got it right--it sounds like you were surprised when she started yelling at you."

    Furthermore, young people who want to please may agree all the time with the interviewer. Without being accusatory, ask about other feelings you can hypothesize a young person in their situation might have.


    Do not move too quickly on inquiring about problem behaviors.

    Putting the teenager at ease means "getting personal" about their interests and the positives in their relationships with family and peers. But they are likely to be less open when they are asked about something that makes them feel vulnerable. Sometimes requesting their permission to start talking about a difficult subject helps. Inviting them to tell the story will make them less anxious than questioning. Showing empathy for the shame, pain, or fear associated with memories, and sometimes ending the discussion of that topic for awhile are helpful.


    Avoid two adult interviewers with one adolescent.

        Even two friendly interviewers can be overwhelming for a young person who has concentration difficulties or threatening for a teen who has been abused and does not want someone else to be in control. Two on one is usually perceived by a teenager as overpowering, which will influence the entire interview.

    Do not alienate the young person at the beginning of the interview.

        It is customary with adults to start a formal interview with a preview of the topics to be discussed and an explanation of the interviewer's role.. More than a one sentence introduction is likely to turn a teenager off--you become just another adult lecturing with words that are hard to understand. Plan your first sentence so you can focus immediately on putting the young person at ease. Most of the introductory things you would say set up the interview for you but can be worked in later when the young person feels comfortable. Don't talk about yourself. Invite the teenager to ask you questions any time about what will happen next and your role.