Unconscious Transmission of Trauma in Young Children Alleging Sexual Abuse

Unconscious Transmission of Trauma in Young Children

Alleging Sexual Abuse

            A growing number of sexual abuse allegations in young children occur every day in the context of high conflict divorce or custody cases. These cases cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and countless hours of legal and mental health professionals’ time and energy. These cases are highly polarizing and often end up with a judge making decisions regarding the welfare of the child and the disposition of parenting time. At times, children are separated from the accused parent for weeks or months before there is a court ruling. The accused parent and the children suffer from this prolonged separation, and in some cases, parents and children are never reintegrated.

Mental health professionals are often key witnesses for the child. They will help lawyers and judges determine the credibility of children’s allegations. Mental health professionals assess a child’s mental state through parent’s report of behaviors at home, the child’s behavior in the playroom, and the observable measures of trauma.

A telltale sign of abuse is change in the child’s behavior. Behaviors such as bed-wetting, regression, sleep and eating disturbances, and fits of crying, which were not there prior to the child’s allegations, are often seen as indicators that the child has been abused. Also there is often an increase in sexually provocative behaviors seen in the child that display a preoccupation with sexual stimuli commensurate with sexual abuse. Mental health professionals have been saying for years; you can coach a child to say anything, but you can’t coach behaviors.

Is this true? Professionals are seeing more and more children who have made false allegations of sexual abuse act as if they have actually been abused. They have nightmares, a preoccupation with sexual stimuli, and regress. Parents videotape, keep journals, and mounds of collateral evidence to support the notion their child has been a victim of sexual abuse. So how can this be understood?

Munchausen by Proxy is a disorder in which a parent intentionally creates an illness in a child for medical attention. This is a serious disorder and one that certainly plays a role in fabricated allegations in children. These children often have a history of illnesses, doctor and hospital visits and there are extensive records of medical concerns. Often the parent is intentionally lying or exaggerating symptoms in the child. Munchausen by Proxy is rare and some theories point to a history of abuse and neglect as underlying factors in the etiology of this disorder. If a child is treated as though they have been sexually abused, brought to countless doctors and mental health professionals by parents suffering from this disorder, the child may begin to actually believe something is wrong with him or her.

There is another explanation however, that appears to be more relevant with children who make false allegations of sexual abuse. Children who make false allegations of sexual abuse are often the unwitting victims of unconscious transmission of trauma. Much research has been done in this area, particularly with the second generation of Holocaust survivors. The research points to the fact that children of trauma victims often display symptoms of trauma even though they have never been victims of abuse.

How does this occur? Through neurobiology research, we have learned that children can inherit the predisposition toward trauma, specifically heightened sensitivity, overactive neurological systems, and hyperactivity. But more important, are the subtle and often unconscious ways a parent can transmit to the child a sense of danger, fear, and anxiety. Through silent facial expressions, body language, and voice tones, a parent can instill a general feeling of danger to a child.

We know that sexually abused women are more likely to have children who themselves are victims of sexual abuse. This can be understood in identifying the ways in which these children believe themselves to be victims. Exposure to the parent’s feelings about sexuality, the way in which the parent touches or doesn’t touch the child, the things that are said to the child about sexuality and the body influence the child in subtle ways that accumulate over time until the child actually believes that he or she has been abused. A parent may also reward a child by praise or attention for certain statements made by the child. This also reinforces the fabricated allegations.

In a highly contentious divorce, the anger between the parties is palpable. The child picks up on this and naturally seeks refuge with the most available parent. The mother may believe, if there was domestic dispute between the couple, that the father will therefore hurt the child. Her concerns, anxiety, and fear of the father are manifested in every gesture, facial expression, and verbalization she utters that has to do with her anger at the father. Therefore, unwittingly, or intentionally, the mother will impart her fear and anger of father onto her child. It is important to note   mothers are more often the cause of alienation and false allegations; yet, it can also be father who attempts to alienate the children from the mother.

Preschool children can be easy targets for fabrication. They engage in magical thinking, have limited memory, and are programmed to respond to adult authority. Many studies have been done where young children are made to believe in things that are clearly not true. Researches have made children believe they visited Disneyland and children actually give details about the fictitious visit. So it is no surprise that children can be made to believe they have been sexually abused and act accordingly.

Therefore, it is critical, when evaluating these cases, that every possible avenue is explored. Well meaning mental health professionals who are not familiar with unconscious transmission of trauma may naively endorse a child’s behaviors as indicative of bona fide sexual abuse.

Often, in order to protect children, the courts, social services, and Child Family Investigators will recommend that the child have no contact with the alleged perpetrator. This can extend to months of no contact between child and parent furthering the alienation, fear, and distrust of that parent. And too often, I have seen a diagnosis of child sexual abuse be confirmed by a therapist who has never met the accused parent. This is tantamount to malpractice and should never occur, unless the accused parent is incarcerated.

Therefore, it is critical that a sexual abuse evaluation include individual sessions with the accused parent, as well as sessions with the child and the accused parent. Often, during these parent child interactions, the child will not show an increased trauma response. The child may be initially shy and withdrawn, but with encouragement, they will eventually engage with the parent. It is then that a knowledgeable therapist can see the type of relationship that exists between parent and child.

I strongly urge that mental health professionals adopt this practice when they are assessing a child who has made allegations of sexual abuse and the legal system be educated concerning the conditions upon which fabricated allegations of sexual abuse occur.


Dr. Baker offers power point presentations on fabricated vs. bona fide allegations of sexual abuse in children for the legal system and mental health professionals.


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