Understanding Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS)

The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) was coined by Roland Summit, M.D in 1983. It’s a simple and logical theory that’s widely used to help in understanding how many children respond to sexual abuse. However, it’s important to note that not all children display responses consistent with this model, so it isn’t absolute.

Plus, the model is a misnomer as the theory isn’t a “syndrome,” as such.

Despite these points, the model is often used by law enforcement, prosecutors, and child welfare agencies in pinpointing the typical behaviour of child sexual abuse victims. To learn more about CSAAS and what it can tell us, keep reading.

The Five Stages of Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome

Roland Summit’s model divides the common reactions of child sexual abuse victims into five categories, which we’ll go through next. Before we discuss them, it’s important to note that many child victims of sexual abuse go through a “grooming process” before the abuse starts.

They are often targeted by abusers specifically on account of the child’s compliant and obedient manner, so abusers believe they are unlikely to tell anyone. The offender may spend a long time grooming them and going to certain lengths to create trust within the relationship. This can include buying them presents or giving them compliments.

1. Secrecy

Children that are abused often keep their experience a secret. This is for several reasons.

For example, they may be frightened of the offender. If they were beaten or attacked, they may be scared of being hit again. The abuser may also promise safety to them or their loved ones if they don’t expose the abuse.

This is especially powerful for children that are neglected or emotionally abused. This is because such children often dream of their parents’ approval and affection and they may keep their secret of abuse quiet in the hope of keeping their parent’s love.

2. Helplessness

Children are helpless and subordinate compared to adults. That means they can’t, or don’t know how to, remove themselves from a dangerous situation like sexual abuse.

The children that do try to protect themselves or fight back are often powerless against a dangerous adult. When they attempt to protect themselves and this fails, this tells the child that they’re helpless and that there’s nothing they can do to look after themselves.

When they reach this point, they may stop trying to defend themselves. Instead, they may react by withdrawing or dissociating themselves from the abuse.

3. Entrapment and Accommodation

At this stage, a child keeping a secret of sexual abuse will carry on feeling helpless and trapped. However, the child begins to accept the situation and goes into survival mode.

The abused and helpless child will discover how to reach some kind of power and control. In many cases, abused children start to blame themselves. They may believe that they did something to welcome the abuse.

Physically abused children may believe that their own bad behavior could be the reason why they’re abused, especially if it’s by someone close to them like a parent.

Emotionally abused or neglected children may believe they have horrible personality traits. Children that are physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused may also adopt ways to deal with their abuse. As mentioned, this can include dissociation or blocking out the experiences.

4. Delayed Disclosure

Adults who ask a child to tell them about their experiences of sexual abuse must understand that this may frighten the child. Initial disclosures may be filled with fear, retractions, and inconsistences as the child may be terrified to divulge the information.

So, in many cases the report from an abused child may sound unconvincing or weak. It’s important to remember that the child may have used defensive coping mechanisms to deal with their situation. That means their records and perceptions may be altered and confusing.

5. Retraction

When a child finally does disclose their experiences of sexual abuse, they may be traumatized with a variety of feelings. These can include guilt, fear, and feelings of betrayal and confusion.

The first responses may also scare them. For example, the child may be taken from the family home and into foster care, or the members of their family may be investigated.

In some cases, the child may retract their statement. It makes sense, as children often want to stay in a familiar situation. This is no matter how hard it is for them.

Many abused children want to stay with their families, even if they are abusive.

The Limits of the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome

While the model offers one perspective into children’s reactions of sexual abuse, it’s important to note that there’s limited evidence of the model’s authenticity. As such, the CSAAS isn’t typically accepted in the scientific community, apart from for delayed reporting.

Likewise, as mentioned, the model doesn’t mean all abused children will show these patterns in their responses. Like with all models, it’s important to take the CSAAS model with a pinch of salt.