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8/6/17blog post

sibling incest

It’s easy to warn kids about the danger from strangers, but how do you talk to them about sexual abuse from their siblings?  Most parents avoid such conversations, and kids pay a high cost for their ignorance.

It’s difficult to know the extent of this problem because sibling incest is tough to research. In one study conducted by David Finkelhor, 15% of college females and 10% of males reported sexual contact with a sibling during childhood. However, not all sexual activity is abusive, with Finkelhor estimating that about 25% of the incidents were exploitative.

Identifying sexually abusive relationships is easy in extreme situations, but problematic in many others. Toddlers touching each other’s genitals during bath time is not abusive, whereas the same activity between a teenager and a seven-year-old is exploitative.

What’s the difference between normal and abusive?  First, consider the age difference between the siblings, with abuse more likely as the age difference increase. Most professionals are concerned with anything greater than a five-year difference, and in some cases, even a two or three-year age discrepancy can be abusive.

Second, investigate whether coercion or force was used by the older sibling to initiate sexual contact with the younger child. Acquiescence is often maintained by threats of harm, or promises of special favors.

A more insidious type of coercion occurs when the older sibling manipulates the younger child into feeling that the sexual activities are normal and special.  Younger kids may feel both physical gratification and emotional satisfaction from a secret sexual relationship with an older sibling.

Finally, the duration and types of sexual activities help distinguish between sexual exploration and exploitation. Any oral sex or genital-anal contact is cause for concern.

Sibling incest is one of the most underreported types of abuse. Younger kids are fearful of getting themselves in trouble, and often don’t want anything bad to happen to their older brother or sister.

Kids are not the only ones fearful of the disclosure. Parents are as well. How do you manage a situation if you discover sibling sexual behavior?  These are complicated situations to decipher, and professional mental health assistance is required.

Parents may be fearful of seeking such help, as it may trigger reports to child protection agencies and law enforcement. These older siblings are rarely pedophiles but rather engage in sexual contact because of opportunity, curiosity, and physical gratification. However, once reported, parents worry that the older teen may suffer legal consequences beyond the severity of the situation.

Sexual abuse can have lifelong consequences, with sibling incest being particularly harmful. Please have these difficult conversations with your kids.   

Gregory Ramey, PhD., Executive Director

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