Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome
March 26, 2009
In 1983, Dr. Roland Summit formulated a theory about how sexually abused children view their abuse and attempt to cope with it. He appropriately called this the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome. He stated: “A child molested by a father and rejected by the mother is psychologically orphaned. . . Rejection by adult caretakers increases the helplessness, hopelessness, isolation and self-blame that makes up most of the damaging aspects of child sexual victimization.” Dr. Summit described five components of this syndrome.
- Secrecy : The child is tricked into thinking that she holds the key to keeping the family together as long as she keeps the secret. She doesn't tell anyone about these awful things that are being done to her, even though it is dangerous, because she is scared to death. The message she gets is everything will be all right as long as she doesn't say anything. Most children, like myself, thus learn to keep our mouths shut.
- Helplessness : Since a child finds the loss of love or losing the connection to her family more frightening than a threat of violence, she is coerced once again to remain silent. The same rationale that was once applied to adult rape victims can also be applied to child abuse victims. Unless they forcibly resist, cry out for help or try to escape, people tend to believe the behavior is consensual. In reality, a small child, or animal, will either try to hide or will pretend like they are asleep-both of which I did. This adds to the belief of total helplessness.
- Entrapment and Accommodation : When a child is continually victimized, she tries to figure out how to accept the situation and survive. A child can't reconcile the fact that the people who are supposed to love her and take care of her are also the ones who are neglecting and sexually abusing her. The only logical conclusion she can draw is that it is her fault and by being good, she will earn her abuser's love. At times, like I did, a child will turn to imaginary companions for reassurance. A child, like I did, may dissociate from her body to not feel the pain because it is too overwhelming.
- Delayed, conflicted, and unconvincing disclosure : A child abuse victim usually does not divulge they are being sexually abused while still a child. When they become an independent teenager and tell others about the abuse, they risk not being believed by family members, humiliated or punished. If they are a troubled youth or an outstanding student, like I was, it makes it even harder to convince others of the abuse. And without corroborating testimony, the child will usually be disbelieved over an outwardly appearing respectable adult.
- Retraction : A child who angrily discloses the abuse carries a lot of guilt about possibly destroying the family so at times they retract what they have said. Once again, the responsibility of protecting the family is placed on the child instead of the adults.
Imagine how I felt when, as an adult, I learned about the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome. It explained all the guilt, self-hate, and blame I had carried around all those years that somehow as a defenseless child, I should have been able to figure all this out by myself and do something about it.
I had gotten so much invalidating feedback as an infant and throughout my childhood about my self-worth and abilities that by the time I started my teenage years, I was emotionally and psychologically crippled. I couldn't accurately label my feelings, nor could I could trust my own thought process or make valid interpretations about what was happening to me or around me. I had unconsciously internalized my parent's negative conditioning to the point where I had learned to invalidate myself.
I hope all survivors read about this syndrome. Think about how these five categories may explain some of your behavior both as a child and in the present. It may help you make since of your reactions and feelings as it did for me.