On average, sibling sexual abuse starts younger, lasts longer and is more intrusive than sexual abuse outside the family. It is also more likely to be ignored or not reported.
It is important to recognize that while some sexual behavior between siblings may be deemed inappropriate, it is essential not to pathologize developmentally normal behavior.
Boundaries in the Home
Finding out that a child has been sexually abusing their sibling is a heartbreaking experience for parents. However, it is important to remember that both the victim and the perpetrator need treatment and care. The offending sibling must be held accountable and kept apart from their victim while in medicine so they do not harm other children.
Children who abuse their siblings spend the majority of their time with them, making sibling sexual abuse an opportunistic crime that is likely to occur when the offender has access and opportunity. Moreover, research into adolescent sex offenders indicates that they often exhibit poor peer relationships, social skills, and isolation, which could lead to them using their siblings as an outlet for their unmet needs.
Finding a therapist who can help you set healthy boundaries in your relationships with difficult family members is important. Identifying and putting your limits first is a good way to start.
Boundaries in the Classroom
While much attention is focused on intrafamilial abuse perpetrated by adults, sibling sexual abuse remains under-studied and unreported. On average, this type of abuse occurs earlier, lasts longer and is more intrusive than non-sibling abuse.
Survivors of sibling sexual abuse also face a greater challenge in disclosing their experiences because their parents may not believe them or dismiss their reports as “normal.” This is especially true for survivors who report that their abuser was their brother.
Mental health counselors treating survivors of sibling sexual abuse should know their clients need help addressing feelings of shame, fear and guilt. They should consider incorporating individual and family therapy into treatment plans to address the complex interaction between familial relationships and abusive sibling interactions. Therapists should also be sure to discuss the impact that societal and familial denial of sibling sexual abuse has on survivors. They should also emphasize the importance of establishing healthy boundaries for siblings.
Boundaries in the Community
Although sibling sexual abuse is often ignored or minimized, it can be as harmful as physical abuse. Survivors of sibling sexual abuse are at greater risk of re-victimization in relationships. They may have trouble recognizing threats, such as abusive family members and peers who are in a position to hurt them.
In addition, a survivor’s low self-esteem can be exploited by siblings who use coercive tactics to manipulate them into engaging in sexual acts. One study found that a girl’s brother “tricked her into sexual behaviors with hugs and another non-sexual physical contact, then escalated the contact to include sexual actions”.
Mental health professionals can promote healthy boundaries by addressing the issue directly with clients. They can also encourage families to participate in structured parenting education programs like those offered by national grassroots networks. This advocacy can help prevent sibling sexual abuse by teaching parents how to build positive parent-child relationships and nurture prosocial siblings.
Boundaries in the School
In many cases, sibling sexual abuse is perpetrated within a highly dysfunctional family environment. When this is the case, children whose siblings have been abused may not show external signs of harm; therefore, the problem can remain unreported. This is exacerbated when the child victim lives in a family with multiple offenders of intrafamilial sexual abuse.
Perpetrators of sibling sexual abuse often present with developmentally inappropriate and problematic sexual behavior. In individual therapy, the therapist must address denial and explain that although many perpetrators have endured abuse, they must take responsibility for their actions.
The impact of sibling sexual abuse can be lifelong. For example, college student survivors of sibling sexual abuse are at risk for at-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex and abusing alcohol and drugs. Promoting healthy boundaries in all aspects of life is important to prevent sibling sexual abuse.