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Children Tend to Accommodate Abuse By Parents, Study Suggests

Dec 26, 2013 06:50 PM EST
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Children who are abused by their parents tend to accommodate it, especially if the abuse is physical rather than sexual, a new study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect found.

Led by Carmit Katz of Tel Aviv University's Bob Shapell School of Social Work, the study analyzed a random sample of 224 interviews conducted by trained Israeli authorities in 2011 in which children provided allegations of abuse. Roughly half dealt with allegations of multiple instances of physical abuse by parents, and the other half with allegations of sexual abuse. 

Two general responses were identified: Either the children accepted the harm and tried to minimize its severity where they could, or they fought back. Older children were more likely to fight than younger ones, as were victims of sexual abuse when compared to physical abuse - but only to a point. Once the sexual abuse crossed a certain threshold of severity, the victims began to act like those experiencing physical abuse, attempting to accommodate the abuser. One child went so far as to say in an interview: "Daddy was yelling at me because I didn't do my homework, so I told him I am sorry you are right and brought him his belt." According to Katz, other children shared similar sentiments. 

Surprisingly, the frequency of abuse, familiarity with the abuser and the child's gender did not appear to affect the victim's response.

Katz notes that when they are not abusing their children, many parents are offering things the children desperately need, like care and support. For this reason, many seem to feel their best option is to submit. 

"All the cases of alleged physical abuse in the study involved parents, while we had very few cases of alleged parental sexual abuse," Katz said. "More than the type of abuse, it may be that children feel they have no choice but to endure abuse by their parents, who they depend on for love and support."  

It's possible, according to the Katz, that the study underreports instances of children who submit to sexual abuse by their parents. Of the 107 interviews in which children provided allegations of sexual abuse, only six included parents, and most cases in the study were severe. Previous research has shown that children who accommodate sexual abuse often suffer from feelings of guilt and shame, which could discourage the victims from speaking out.

Knowing how children are likely to respond to abuse is important when it comes to prosecuting abusers, Katz said, adding she hopes to see future studies focusing on children's interactions with clinicians after abuse and how cultural factors may affect the victims' responses.

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