Stockholm Syndrome

The Stockholm Syndrome was named after a famous bank robbery that occurred in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Two armed robbers held bank employees, three women and one man, hostage for six days. The hostages were bound with dynamite and were cruelly treated. The hostages became emotionally attached to the bank robbers and came to see their captors as protecting them from the police. One of the hostages later became engaged to one of the robbers. Another victim set up a defense fund for the robbers. Patty Hearst is another example of the Stockholm Syndrome. She was kidnapped and abused by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. However. she bonded with the soldiers and later joined them and assisted in a bank robbery. Dr. Nils Bejerot, criminologist and psychiatrist, created the term Stockholm Syndrome to describe this dynamic. 

Bonding with the abuser is now seen as a common phenomenon by professionals who work with victims and hostages and may be a universal survival strategy for victims of interpersonal violence. This bonding is referred to as traumatic bonding or a betrayal bond.  Hostages, concentration camp prisoners, cult members, abused children, and battered women all share this dynamic that occurs in a powerless, helpless situation. Victims bond with perpetrators and are loyal and protective of them. Victims may even develop the beliefs and values of perpetrators.

Psychological processes underlying the Stockholm Syndrome include disbelief and minimization of the event by victims, suppression of anger, dependence on the person committing the violence, taking on the viewpoint of the abuser, and mental health problems (e.g., depression, apathy, PTSD). The intermittent reward provided by the abuser, who is sometimes cruel and violent and sometimes kind and nice, reinforces the bond (i.e., cycle of violence). In attempts to please the abuser, the victim may take on certain characteristics, such as compliance, denial, passivity, dependence, and fondness for the abuser. Four factors that dispose a victim to respond in this way are:
perceived threat to physical or psychological safety, perceived small kindness from the abuser, isolation, and perceived inability to escape or change the situation.   

Graham (1994) describes major indicators of the Stockholm Syndrome:

  • Victim shows symptoms of ongoing trauma or PTSD.
  • Victim is bonded to abuser.
  • Victim is grateful for small kindnesses of abuser.
  • Victim denies violence or rationalizes violence and denies anger about abuse.
  • Victim is hypervigilant to meets abuser's needs and keep abuser happy.
  • Victim views world from abuser's perspective.
  • Victim sees rescuers as the bad guys and abuser as the good guy/protector.
  • It is difficult for victim to leave abuser or separate psychologically from abuser.
  • Victim fears retaliation from abuser.

Victims use cognitive distortions as survival strategies. These same cognitive distortions could occur in any type of chronic interpersonal abuse (child sexual abuse or adult domestic violence). Cognitive distortions include self-blame, viewing the abuser as a victim, and believing that, if they (victims) loved the abuser enough, the abuse would stop. Use of cognitive distortions minimize the terror felt by victims, facilitates the bonding process, and instills hope in the victim.

The Stockholm Syndrome provides an explanation for the reluctance of both child and adult victims of child sexual abuse to disclose the abuse and when already disclosed, to recant (later deny) that it occurred. Because of the close relationships between parent and child, betrayal bonds are present when abuse occurs. Children are dependent on their parents, and the child's survival is at risk. Dissociation is a central mechanism in betrayal trauma theory, allowing victims to be unaware of information that may threaten the relationship with a trusted other or someone upon whom they depend for survival. The betrayal bond facilitates continued attachment to the perpetrator. When discussing domestic violence  or child sexual abuse, the dynamics of the Stockholm Syndrome can be helpful in understanding the behavior of child victims. The process which brings about this change in victims includes specific stages. These are:



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