When a man in Israel was accused of sexually abusing his
young daughter, it was hard for many people to believe, a neighbour reported
seeing the girl sitting and drinking hot chocolate with her father every
morning, laughing, smiling, and looking relaxed. Such cases are not
exceptional, however, children react to sexual and physical abuse in
unpredictable ways, making it hard to discern the clues.
Now Dr Carmit Katz of Tel Aviv University's Bob Shapell
School of Social Work has found that when parents are physically abusive,
children tend to accommodate it. But when the abuse is sexual, they tend to
fight or flee it unless it is severe. The findings, published in Child Abuse & Neglect, help explain
children's behaviour in response to abuse and could aid in intervention and
"All the cases of alleged physical abuse in the study
involved parents, while we had very few cases of alleged parental sexual
abuse," said Dr Katz. "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."
About 3.5 million cases of child abuse are reported in the
United States every year. Similarly alarming situations exist in many other
countries. Abused children often suffer from emotional and behavioural
problems, which can later develop into sexual dysfunction, anxiety,
promiscuity, depression, vulnerability to repeated victimisation, and substance
Israel is not immune. In 2011, trained Israeli authorities
interviewed more than 15 000 children following complaints of abuse. Previous
research showed that half of children do not disclose anything in interviews,
even when there is evidence of abuse.
Dr Katz analysed a random sample of 224 of the interviews in
which children provided allegations. Roughly half the cases in the study
involved allegations of multiple incidents of physical abuse by parents, while
the other half involved allegations of sexual abuse.
Dr Katz found that the children responded to the abuse in
two general ways. In physical abuse cases, the children tended to be
accommodating they accepted and tried to minimise the severity of the abuse.
On the other hand, children reporting sexual abuse tended to
fight back. But when the alleged sexual abuse was severe, the children tended
to act like physical abuse victims, accommodating the abuser. Older children,
they found, were more likely to fight than younger ones.
But surprisingly, the
frequency of the abuse, familiarity with the abuser, and the child's gender did
not significantly affect how the children responded.
Dr Katz says the study teaches an important lesson when it
comes to parental physical abuse. Just because children do not fight or flee
their parents does not mean they are not being abused. Children need their
parents to survive, and in some cases, parents love, care for, and support
their children when they are not abusing them.
Under these impossible
circumstances, children often feel their best option is accommodation. In one
interview in the study, a child said, "Daddy was yelling on me because I
didn't do my homework, so I told him I am sorry you are right and brought him
his belt." There were many similar examples.
The study may underreport children who accommodate sexual
abuse by their parents, Dr Katz says. Out of the 107 interviews in which
children provided allegations of sexual abuse, only six involved a parent.
Most of the cases of sexual abuse in the study were severe,
and children tended to respond by accommodating their abusers. Previous
research showed that children who accommodate their abusers are more likely to harbour
feelings of guilt or shame, which may deter them from providing allegations.
Accommodation, then, may actually be the dominant response to both types of
The findings help make sense of the testimonies of children
in abuse cases. This could help prosecute abusers and provide better
intervention and treatment to abused children.
More on child physical
and sexual abuse