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.”
- Secrecy: The child is tricked into thinking that s/he holds the key to keeping the family together as long as s/he keeps the secret. S/he doesn’t tell anyone about these awful things that are being done to him/her, even though it is dangerous because s/he is scared to death. The message s/he gets is everything will be all right as long as s/he doesn’t say anything. Most children, like I did, thus learn to keep our mouths shut.
- Helplessness: Since a child finds the loss of love or losing the connection to his/her family more frightening than a threat of violence, s/he 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, s/he 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 him/her and take care of him/her are also the ones who are neglecting and sexually abusing them. The only logical conclusion s/he can draw is that it is his/her fault and by being good, s/he will earn his/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 he/she becomes 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 their 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 everything 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 trust my own thought processes 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.
1 Summit, R. C. The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, Child Abuse and Neglect 1983; (7): 177-192