The Search for Autonomous Intimacy: Sexual Abuse and Young Women's Identity Development

By M. Sue Crowley | Go to book overview

Conclusion: Developmental Implications

The developmental timing of her brother's incest during early childhood coincided with the emergence of a comparative self-concept that forms as children become increasingly involved in the social world of peers and authorities outside the home. As children interact with more people, their understanding of self becomes framed by perceptions of their similarities to and differences from others. Simultaneously, five- and six-year-olds are becoming much more aware of social expectations and conventions. At this age a child who has experienced incest can become trapped in a social- cognitive paradox, a double bind linking a fearful awareness of the social implications of incest with the inability to lend it explanatory meaning in comparison to others their age. On some level of understanding, they know that the secret of incest sets them apart from others in ugly, secret ways; but they cannot fully understand what has happened.

Another aspect of the self-concept that emerges around the age of seven or eight for most children is the knowledge that they have an inner self that is separate from the social face they show the world of peers and authorities. The typical eight-year-old becomes capable of dividing her self-concept into two parts, an external self image that is shown to the world and an internal self-concept that remains more private. In some ways this is the true origin of James's bifurcated self, the "Me" and the "I." While signaling a more complex understanding of self-other relations, the ability to divide one's self into distinct parts may also become a form of psychological fragmentation for children who have experienced incest.

At about the same time, most children's understanding of morality becomes focused on group norms among peers and the proscriptions they learn from authority figures, including teachers, parents, and older siblings. This social understanding of what is "good" or "bad" enables them to move more effectively in the wider contexts they explore as they proceed through middle and late childhood. Although the messages they receive about morality come from many different, sometimes contradictory, sources, it is interesting to note the consistency with which children who have experienced incest seem to understand that what has happened to them is a source of guilt and shame. Incest is too bad to talk about. Because the abusive experience(s) cannot be compared or shared with others, the badness associated with it often becomes situated within them. Thus isolated in the

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