Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 | Author: mjward

Do you remember playing sexual exploration games when you were a child? I do. Many were of the type “if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” At what point does normal curiosity become abuse? For many years, as the awareness of father-daughter incest grew, sexual abuse by siblings was under the radar. Even now, it still does not raise the same concern as the former, though it is in fact probably more common.

Most research and discussion on sibling abuse has used a deficit model focused on problems within families rather than on their strengths. Professionals discuss sibling incest as part of a family pattern of abuse and neglect. Often there is a sexualized atmosphere in the family. Perhaps parents engage in sexual activity in front of their children or perhaps they have extramarital affairs. Children are more likely to witness such acts or to have access to pornography if living quarters are cramped. Some parents give older children too much responsibility for the care of younger siblings. Often such a child assumes authority over younger siblings and even cares for parents, but has undeveloped social skills and may exercise power through violence and intimidation. Sexual abuse of younger siblings can be one expression of this power. Abuse occurs more often if children are neglected or have insufficient supervision. Neglect, in turn, may bring inadequate upbringing, including a lack of or inappropriate sex education. Most of these factors are made worse if parents feel overwhelmed.

Marsha L. Heiman’s 1988 paper in Bank and Lewis’ book Siblings in Therapy sets out four preconditions for sibling incest. First, the brother or sister must want to be abusive. This factor includes sexual arousal, poor social skills in filling the desire in appropriate ways, and poor understanding of sexuality. Second, the abuser must overcome inhibitions, which include social taboos against sexual relations with close family members. In adoption, foster care and stepfamilies, children without a biological relationship or common history are thrust together. Thus the taboo might not operate in respect to the new sibling. Third, the child must overcome outside barriers such as close supervision. If parents are unsuspecting or do not care, they may not be watchful. Finally, the abuser needs to overcome the victim’s resistance through bribes, threats, or other forms of force.

Most interventions and therapies rely on the deficit view of the family. However, such an approach is not appropriate for many families that are otherwise pretty healthy. This includes adoptive or foster ones. Many families have weak points in recognizing sibling sexual abuse. Some have an “it can’t happen in our family” belief. They may not be aware of the physical and behavioral signs that abuse might be occurring. Or they may be unsure of the border between normal exploration and play and sexual abuse. Adoptive parents I interviewed were told only after their new son had molested two cousins that he had been sexually abused by his father. His foster mother said he hadn’t shown inappropriate sexual behavior in her home, though she had needed to stop him from aggressively tickling another child. His adoptive mother was certain in hindsight that the tickling had been sexually motivated. Third, parents are worried about the repercussions of reporting suspected sibling abuse. They fear, often realistically, that their family may be broken up by the authorities. A therapy model that looks at family weaknesses rather than family strengths is further inhibiting because parents believe they are blamed for their children’s actions.

What then can be done to prevent sibling sexual abuse and to help families when such abuse occurs?

Knowledge is the first line of defense. Parents need education in the signs that abuse may be occurring. It may be difficult to distinguish emotional reactions to abuse from changes in behavior that result from the family upheaval following the adoptive or foster placement of an older child or following the formation of a stepfamily. Parents also need to know how to prevent sexual abuse from occurring. A pamphlet on parenting the sexually abused child, published a number of years ago by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse provides guidelines. Some precautions are common sense. Privacy in bedrooms and bathrooms should be enforced. If children share rooms, then boys and girls should not be in each others’. Public nakedness or near-nakedness should be discouraged for both parents and children. Suggestive or obscene language needs to be vetoed. Aggressive wrestling or tickling may have sexual overtones. Children should receive appropriate sex education. They also need to learn to differentiate between feelings and behavior.

If sibling sexual abuse occurs in spite of education and parents’ preventive efforts, interventions should draw on the strengths of the family, rather than looking for weaknesses. All family members need support, parents and children, victims and offenders alike. Blame should be kept to the minimum, with a focus on what actions need to take place. First, it is important to ensure the safety of all the children in the family, including the one who has offended. Reporting to authorities must occur as legally mandated. If feasible, the family should be preserved. A conference of the family and support individuals, including agency personnel, relatives, and friends, may come up with creative solutions. For example, the offending child may be placed with a relative or in a care facility without severing ties with his or her family. Such an arrangement does not preclude reintegration into the family, if circumstances change. Whatever the solution, the family needs to be vitally involved. There are, of course, no easy answers.



Caffaro, J. (2011). Sibling violence and systems-oriented therapy. In J. Caspi (Ed.), Sibling development: Implications for mental health practitioners (pp. 245-272). New York: Springer.

Heiman, M. L. (1998). Untangling incestuous bonds: The treatment of sibling incest. In M. D. Kahn & K. G. Lewis (Eds.). Siblings in therapy: Life span and clinical issues (pp. 135-166). New York: W. W. Norton.

Narimanian, R., & Rosenzweig, J. (n.d.). Parenting the sexually abused child. Washington, DC: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. (n.d.). Sibling sexual abuse: A guide for parents. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.

Wiehe, V. R. (2002). What parents need to know about sibling abuse: Breaking the cycle of violence. Springville, UT: Bonneville Books.

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