, Volume 18, Issue 11, pp 645-651,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 21 May 2009

Pervasive refusal syndrome as part of the refusal–withdrawal–regression spectrum: critical review of the literature illustrated by a case report


Pervasive refusal syndrome (PRS) is a rare child psychiatric disorder characterized by pervasive refusal, active/angry resistance to help and social withdrawal leading to an endangered state. Little has been written about PRS. A literature search yielded only 15 relevant articles, all published between 1991 and 2006. This article presents a critical review of the published literature, illustrated by a case report of an 11-year-old girl. PRS most often affects girls (75%). The mean age of the known population is 10.5 years. A premorbid high-achieving, perfectionist, conscientious personality seems to play an important role in the aetiology of PRS, as can a psychiatric history of parents or child and environmental stressors. PRS shows a symptom overlap with many other psychiatric disorders. However, none of the current DSM diagnoses can account for the full range of symptoms seen in PRS, and the active/angry resistance can be considered as the main distinguishing feature. Treatment should be multidisciplinary and characterized by patience, gentle encouragement and tender loving care. Hospitalization, ideally in a child and adolescent psychiatric unit, is almost always required. Although the recovery process is painfully slow (average duration of therapy 12.8 months), most children recover fully (complete recovery in 67% of known cases). In our opinion, it is important to increase knowledge of PRS, not only because of its disabling, potential life-threatening character, but also because there is hope for recovery through suitable treatment. We therefore propose an incorporation of PRS into the DSM and ICD classifications. However, an adaptation of the current diagnostic criteria is needed. We also consider PRS closely related to regression, which is why we introduce a new concept: “the refusal–withdrawal–regression spectrum”.

G. M. J. Hanssen and J. A. van der Valk contributed equally to this paper.