Viewpoint: December 2015

Post by Gill Gibbons, Pace CEO

I met a CSE survivor at a recent conference and these were her opening words:

“My mum… she spent six months under the duvet when I was being abused. I needed her. If my mum had only been supported…”
We speak to parents on a daily basis who are desperately trying to retain a sense of normality for themselves and their other children, whilst safeguarding a child who is being sexually exploited. Parents are often frantic and frustrated, and struggle to understand what keeps pulling the child back towards the abuse.

We know from our work supporting parents that understanding adolescent brain development and trauma bonding is of critical importance in preventing child sexual exploitation and enabling children to break away from abusers. Yet parents are receiving contradictory and inconsistent advice. They are told they are ‘claustrophobic’ and ‘over emotional’ on one hand, or ‘need to be more nurturing’, ‘need to learn to say no’ and ‘set boundaries’ on the other. Time after time this incorrect advice puts a child at greater risk, accelerates family break down and disempowers parents. Yet, there appears to be little national consideration or discussion of the issue of trauma bonding in our collective approach to CSE.

In terms of neurophysiology, adolescent children are targeted when they are most vulnerable to grooming and sexual exploitation. This can occur because:

Adolescents are looking to form attachments outside the family unit en route to identity formation in preparation for adulthood.
The parent/child attachment diminishes during adolescence.
Adolescents also have an impaired capacity to assess risk due to the changes occurring in the brain.
Psychologists have observed that trauma bonding usually occurs when:

Victims are threatened with, and believe they are in real danger.
Victims suffer harsh treatment interspersed with small kindness (such as the giving of gifts or acts of affection).
Victims are isolated from all perspectives other than that of the abusers.
Victims believe there is no escape.
Once trauma bonding has occurred, the child will develop negative feelings towards potential rescuers (such as parents) and refuse to engage in efforts to assist their release and detachment from the abusers. As many parents and practitioners have seen, the trauma bond between child and exploiter is so strong that the child seeks comfort from the very people who inflict pain on them. Even when the child has been isolated from the abuser(s) the risk of re-bonding is high as even a phone text or Facebook message can reignite the victim’s feelings.

There is currently little or no consistent evidence-based social care training or research on how best to advise or support a parent whose adolescent child is at risk of, or is, being sexually exploited and experiencing trauma bonding. I believe that until we acknowledge and integrate all these factors into our national approach to CSE we will be missing a vital part in understanding what is happening to young victims – and how in response we can help them and support their families.