The Grooming of Children
Grooming refers to the step-by-step preparation of children for a sexual role under the control of adults or an adult. It is important to understand the strategies perpetrators use to groom children over time, so that they become desensitized to the danger of their situation. Gradually their natural defensive boundaries are eroded, in part because they have been conditioned to respect and obey adults, especially their caregivers. Grooming can involve using normal children’s games which evolve over time to sexual exploitation, or may involve an apparently normal cuddling and touching which likewise evolves into sexual behaviour.
How does the grooming of a child escape detection by care-givers? The answer perhaps lies partly in the lack of education about the clues that would help identify when adult-child interactions are inappropriate. As with the issue of ‘silencing’ below, the historical tendency of society to turn a blind eye to child abuse has helped to maintain this void in parental intuition and security procedures.
The Silencing of Children
Silencing refers to a psychological and/or physical imperative imposed on the abused child that they must not speak to anyone about what is happening to them or what is being done to them. Once the perpetrator has imposed his/her will on the child, it is relatively easy to secure their silence. The child’s innate sense of right and wrong usually leaves them feeling very guilty about the behaviour they are experiencing, and the natural ego-centricity of the child will therefore lead them to conclude that they are very bad. The child experiences a deep sense of shame, humiliation and degradation, which by itself would make it difficult to tell others, even without the added proscription from the perpetrator.
Some abuse however is so overtly violent that the child is very willing to report it. In these cases, perpetrators often use threats of dire consequences for self or significant others, including death, if the child reveals what is happening. Punishment as a method of control is very common in cases of child abuse.
One of the huge problems in this area of ‘silencing’, is that silence is not just maintained by the perpetrator and the victim, but by our whole society. People working in this field, whether therapists, children’s court social workers, child protection workers, police or doctors – sees social denial and coverups every day. So often family members will collude with the perpetrator by refusing to either believe the victim when she does disclose or take action against the abuser. Often the next generation of children – the grandchildren – will be left unprotected while the sexual predator in the family is left untouched. And shamefully, it is often the women in the family who do this.
The consequence of this silence and denial is visible in society, with mental illness, pathological behaviour, violence and murder repeating in an ever-growing cycle.
The Child Dissociates to escape
The phenomenon of dissociation is incompletely understood at the neurobiological level, and consequently is described and attributed with slightly different significances by different disciplines. The definition given on this website tries to cover both the neurobiological and psychological symptom of the phenomenon.
Dissociation is defined within neurobiology as a disturbance or alteration in the normally integrated functions of identity, memory, consciousness and sensation. It is a normal biological function to help an organism cope with overwhelming experience. When neither fight nor flight are possible, dissociation provides an alternative escape mechanism, a psychological escape. Dissociation is experienced at some time by most humans – within the normal range are experiences of zoning out, highway hypnosis, daydreaming, and responses to childhood sickness, social embarrassment and humiliation, to name just a few.
Dissociation is a survival strategy that arises spontaneously in response to overwhelming experience. In the face of an intolerable situation, in which the normal instinct of fight or flight is impossible, the child’s only option is related to the ‘freeze’ response. She or he escapes psychologically, using the brain’s dissociative mechanism, just as a captured bird goes limp and appears to withdraw from consciousness.
Many survivors of abuse describe being out of their body during the abuse, hovering above watching themselves. Others experience staying in their body, but focussing all their attention on a physical object in the room, psychologically immersing themselves in this object. Later in life the sight of a similar object may trigger an intense memory flashback, often with no conscious understanding of its significance.
The dissociative response is a powerful and useful survival mechanism. Depending on the age of the child, the degree of the abuse and the length of time it continues, this dissociation will differ in the degree to which it creates separate ‘senses of self’ in the individual’s consciousness. At the far end of the spectrum (Dissociative Identity Disorder – DID), split-off parts of self operate independently of the core Self and are commonly known as alters or alternative parts of self. When the splitting is less severe (OSDD), the parts of self feel like different parts of the core self, rather than being perceived as other people. They are more likely to be perceived as ‘inner child selves’ or oneself at different ages. And there is no ‘loss of time’ (true amnesia) as there is in DID (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder). By the time the survivor enters adulthood, the habit of dissociating under any stressful condition will have become ingrained. It usually takes many years to learn to be able to tolerate stress and traumatic reminders without automatically dissociating.
Two main factors influence whether a traumatic experience is remembered or dissociated (traumatic amnesia) – the nature and frequency of the traumatic events and the age of the victim. Traumas experienced in adulthood invoke less extreme dissociation and amnesia than childhood traumas, and the younger the child, the more extreme the dissociative response, in part because the child’s brain is more malleable and the ego-self less fully formed.
The unresolvable Conflict
The term “conflict” here refers to an internal conflict or double bind within the abused child. This may emerge as a conflict between needing and loving the care-giver who is abusing them, and hating and fearing that same person, or may represent a conflict in relation to the outside world – having to live a double life, appearing to be normal, but knowing something very wrong is happening, which one is not allowed to communicate.
The problem with internal conflict is that the child has no power, and usually no knowledge, of how to resolve it. Similar in a way to the double-bind of the fight-or- flight response, the child has to adopt a survival strategy, which is to create an internal split in the self. This may be expressed in the relationship with the perpetrator (one part loves him/her, and one part hates and fears him/her) or in the relationship with the outside world (one part presents a ‘normal’ self to the world, and may come to believe this part is real, while the other part holds the terrible knowledge of the secret). The destructiveness of this kind of split often leads to self-harming behaviours in adolescence.
The Locus of Control Shift
(adapted from The Trauma Model, Colin Ross. 2007)
Between the ages of 2-7 years, developmentally normal children have the perception that they are the centre of the universe. They have a magical belief that they are all powerful and are the cause of everything that happens to them. These developmentally normal beliefs can be seen as a by-product of healthy attachment.
Abused children tend to be overwhelmed by physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect. They feel powerless, terrified, alone, and helpless. To make sense of these experiences they draw on their limited understanding of the world. “The bad thing happened because I am bad”. Paradoxically, the belief of being bad and responsible for bad things happening is a protective device. Children’s magical thinking leads to the conclusion, “If I have the power to make these things happen because I am bad, I also have the power to stop them happening by being good.” Based on this developmentally normal thinking, and childhood narcissism, children shift the control and power from inside the adults in their world to inside themselves. In the short-term this creates the illusion of having some power and control, where in fact they have none. The child can try and try to be better behaved, smarter, and more likeable, but when the attempts fail and the abuse continues, he or she can conclude that they just haven’t tried hard enough.
Clients hold onto a belief in their inherent badness with an almost fanatical zeal. “I am bad” not only serves as a defence against feelings of powerlessness and loss of control; “I am bad” also protects against facing very painful truths. It protects against facing the pain of betrayal, abandonment, and hurt by the people who should have been there to love, care, nurture and protect them. Turning feelings of rage toward the parents for their abuse and neglect inward, and transforming them into self-loathing and self-hate, protects their need to maintain attachment to the parents for survival. By shifting all the badness to inside themselves, children create the illusion that their parents are safe attachment figures. It is better to be a bad child with good parents, than a good child with bad parents.
Lack of Safety
The need for safety is one of the core requirements for healthy development of an infant and child. The core of the abused child’s world is filled with the experience of lack of safety, and this lack infuses the child’s psychological world with insecurity, fear and anxiety. The issues around safety will probably include – safety when asleep, safety to speak openly, safety in taking a bath, going to the toilet, safety to approach a caregiver for physical comfort, safety to express feelings, and the safe integrity of one’s body.
The chronic lack of a feeling of safety becomes a core organizer of an abused person’s psychological world, and eventually translates into the nervous system organization of post-traumatic stress disorder. The depth of anxiety underlying an abused person’s reality cannot be over-estimated. It is essential that this anxiety be addressed and ameliorated in the therapeutic relationship.
More on Complex-PTSD – Childhood Trauma
Complex PTSD – Childhood Trauma & Abuse
Further Resources and Readings (C-PTSD)