The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS)
In this page we'll discuss the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS)
- Entrapment and Accommodation
- Delayed, Unconvincing Disclosure
Sexual abuse is a traumatic event. In order to cope with it, the child tends to develop psychological structures that ensure her survival. These mechanisms are also known as the Accommodation Syndrome. The syndrome is composed of five categories two of which are preconditions to the occurrence of sexual abuse. The remaining three categories are sequential contingencies which take on increasing variability and complexity. The five categories of the syndrome are: (1) secrecy, (2) helplessness, (3) entrapment and accommodation, (4) delayed, unconvincing disclosure, and (5) retraction.
It happens only when the child is alone with the offender, and it must never be disclosed to others - this is the frightening truth about child sexual abuse. Molestation is something most adults never discuss with children so when this tragedy is brought upon a child's life, she has no idea what to make of it. All the offender wants to ensure is that the secret is never unveiled: "This is our secret; nobody else will understand." "Don't tell anybody." "Nobody will believe you." "Don't tell your mother; (a) she will hate you, (b) she will hate me, (c) she will kill you, (d) she will kill me, (e) it will kill her, (f) she will send you away,(g) she will send me away, or (h) it will break up the family and you'll all end up in an orphanage." "If you tell anyone (a) I won't love you anymore, (b) I'll spank you, (c) I'll kill your dog, or (d) I'll kill you."
Paradoxically, the secrecy is both the source of fear and the promise of safety: "Everything will be all right if you just don't tell."
And sadly, most children never ask and never tell. Most victims never seek help, and never share the abuse with anyone during their childhood.
The context of the abuse is important because it is an artificial construct made by the abuser with the intention of denying the reality of sexual abuse. Here are a few examples: the absence of dialogue and eye contact during the abuse; the possibility of the abuse taking place in total darkness; or a strong ritualization of physical contact. This is how the offender tries to deny the occurrence of the sexual act. And this is how the physical sensations arising from the abuse and the interactional context created by the perpetrator lead to a double physiological, perceptual and emotional experience that is simultaneously conflicting and contradictory.
When examining the context of the abuse, there is another clear issue: the transformation of the offender into the "other person", someone who performs a role of pseudo-partner. This second identity (or second person as the child percieves it) behaves completely different from the first one - gestures, language, tone of voice and facial expressions are different, not to mention the physical behavior.
This category relates to the fact that children are encouraged to repudiate the attention of strangers, but forced to act obedient and affectionate with adults who are close to them. As you know, the vast majority of child sexual abusers are a member of the family or a family friend. In these situations, the balance of power is always unfavorable to the child, so she will rarely has the option to say 'no' to an authority figure.
Entrapment and Accommodation
Most of the times the abuse is recurrent which ultimately creates a pattern that is maintained until the child reaches autonomy or the secret is unveiled. The child is then left with one single option: learn to accept the situation - which implies not only to accommodate the increasing severity of sexual requirements, but also a sense of betrayal and objectification by someone who should be a protection figure. The child has to acquire some sense of power and control - and the only acceptable alternative is to believe that she was responsible for the abuse. Thus, if she behaves differently, if she acts like a "good child", she'll be able to recover the love and acceptance she's entitled. At the same time, in a reversal of roles characteristic of child sexual abuse, the child is given the power to destroy the family or to keep it intact. Being able to maintain a lie, and therefore a secret, becomes the greatest virtue of the child, while revealing the truth becomes her greatest sin. In order to protect herself from reality the child creates "survival bubbles" where she can keep some happiness and hope. To achieve these survival bubbles the child may develop multiple personalities and distribute her feelings between them, designating one as helpless, another as angry, another sexually active, etc. She can also enter altered states of consciousness to avoid pain, or learn to disassociate herself from her body. In this process, the child moves away from the abuse, abandoning her own body and floating near the ceiling, watching the action from a distance, as if it was a nightmare. However, dissociation leads to a series of self-destructive behaviors - the child engages in risky activities or self-multilation as a way to feel alive, or to avoid dealing with painful feelings. For these children, physical pain seems to be more tolerable than the emotional pain.
If the child is unable to create this psychological mechanisms, intolerance to her own vulnerability and a growing sense of anger may eventually seek active expression. It is likely that she will often discuss with both parents, but most of her anger will be directed to the mother, since she assumes that she knows the sexual abuse is taking place but is either too negligent or too useless to intervene. For girls, this failure in a mother-daughter relationship reinforces the lack of confidence she feels as a woman, making her even more dependent on the acceptance and protection of abusive male figures.
Delayed, Unconvincing Disclosure
Most cases of sexual abuse are never disclosed - or at least, never outside the family. In the rare event of an incestuous situation becoming public, this tends to happen after several years of abuse, due to a failure of the accommodation mechanisms, usually during adolescence. During adolescence, the father figure becomes jealous and controlling - a behavior that often goes unnoticed by outside observers. However, the restrictions imposed by the fater will ultimately lead the victim to rebel and denounce the abusive situation, to the disbelief of most authority figures, who see her simply as an impulsive and rebellious adolescent. This happens because they tend to rationalize the problem of child sexual abuse in an adult perspective - for them it's impossible to believe that a normal and honest child could tolerate an incestuous situation without the reporting the abuse immediately. However, we have seen that, for various reasons, the child doesn't have the same power as an adult when it comes to the possibilities of complaint.
Contrary to popular belief, mothers are rarely complicit in the abuse - in most cases, they have no idea of the situation, because the aparently "obvious" symptoms of abuse only become obvious in retrospective. It is curious to verify that society, by assuming that the mother had to know about the abusive situation, is just mimicking the erroneous perception of the child.
Is the child confesses, she will see that all her fears and insecurities about the revelation were true. The family is fragmented, and once again, the child is responsible for the whole process. The inversion of roles continues, and telling the truth is know seen as the wrong choice, while restoring the lie seems to be the right choice. Thus, the child ends up admitting that she made everything up. To the adult community, lying is a more credible explanation than the allegation of sexual abuse, confirming the initial assumptions that children are not trustworthy.