Preventing sibling sexual abuse – what does research tell us?

20 January 2021

We hope this report will bring this subject out of the shadows and contribute to protecting children from harm home at a time when it is needed more than ever.

The Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) has published a new paper on sibling sexual abuse, co-authored by Stuart Allardyce, director of Stop It Now! Scotland, and Dr Peter Yates, lecturer and programme lead in social work at Edinburgh Napier University.

Recognising the problem of sibling sexual abuse

Sexual abuse involving child siblings is thought to be the most common form of child sexual abuse within families, perhaps up to three times as common as sexual abuse of a child by a parent.

The paper aims to help professionals think through the issues and challenges raised by sibling sexual abuse and covers:

  • sexual behaviour between siblings
  • the scale and nature of sibling sexual abuse
  • the impact of sibling sexual abuse
  • professional responses to sibling sexual abuse
  • conclusions and reflections

Because of the scale of the problem, all professionals working in health and social care need to be prepared to work with people affected by sibling sexual abuse, including both children and adult survivors. This involves understanding the nature and consequences of the abuse, to be able to help survivors and families move on from harm and distress.

Stuart Allardyce, co-author of the report and director of Stop It Now! Scotland, says: “A sibling acting in a sexually abusive way towards another sibling is the most common kind of sexual abuse that occurs within families. But it is often a hidden crime, rarely reported at the time and often coming to light years after the event.”

Allardyce continues, “It’s important to recognise that there are lots of different types of sexual interactions that can take place between siblings,” he said. “Some of these, particularly with younger children, are quite common. They’re exploratory and to do with curiosity about children’s own bodies and the bodies of others. But there’s also behaviour that’s inappropriate, there’s behaviour that’s problematic and might happen more often, and then there’s behaviour that’s clearly abusive.”

How to respond to, or prevent, sibling sexual abuse

The CSA Centre’s paper is primarily written for social workers and other professionals involved in the safeguarding of children, but it may be of interest to anyone who finds themselves working with families affected by sibling sexual abuse – for example, teachers, mental health practitioners, foster carers and residential care workers. As sibling sexual abuse is rarely disclosed in childhood, this paper may be of use also to professionals working with adult survivors of sexual abuse.

The report discusses how childcare professionals can better identify sexually abusive interactions between siblings, and respond appropriately. “This response needs to recognise that all involved are children and need to be treated differently to adults in a similar situation, and it also needs to underline the seriousness of this issue,” says Stuart Allardyce.

“We need to get better at intervening in these kinds of cases so that abuse never reoccurs and all family members in these situations get the right support to move on. But we also discuss in the report what we need to do to ensure that this kind of harm is prevented from occurring in the first place. Although written for those involved with child safeguarding, we hope this report will bring this subject out of the shadows and contribute to protecting children from harm home at a time when it is needed more than ever.”

Working with families: points for professionals to consider

  • Do the parents understand what has happened? Can they tell the difference between what might be natural curiosity and sexual exploration, and more concerning behaviours that can either be harmful now or cause emotional issues in the future?
  • Do the parents understand the risk and what needs to change? Are they aware of how it happened in the first place? For example, a lack of supervision or nurturance, or high levels of conflict within the family setting. In order to prevent abuse, it is important that adults are aware of how the abuse could have happened to stop it from happening again.
  • Do the parents understand that some of the factors that contributed to the harmful behaviours could relate to their parenting? Abuse in families can sometimes be linked to other issues and tensions, which might be painful for parents to explore. This could include a lack of supervision or neglecting children, copying coercive or abusive behaviours between parents or rivalry between stepsiblings.
  • Social workers need to be mindful of the conflict parents might feel towards the child who has harmed and the child who has been harmed – finding out that your child has acted in an abusive way can be a hugely traumatic experience for parents. It is important to listen to the perspectives of the parents and take them through what has happened – it is likely they will feel shame and denial. Helping parents process this denial and shame is a key part of the healing process.
  • Another key point to consider is how much the other siblings understand about what has happened? Do they know why their sibling has left the house or why they have certain rules to follow? Also, what do the wider family understand about the situation? Let the family know that there are going to be big changes and it is vital that each family member knows how they can support, supervise and intervene where needed.
  • Additional trauma can happen if either parent is a survivor of sexual abuse themselves, in which case that needs to be considered and dealt with very sensitively. This can cause more issues in accepting what has happened and how they process that their own child has sexually abused or been sexually abused, and their feelings of blame.
  • Families need to be involved as much as possible and as challenging as that can be, it is important that they are involved in all aspects of decision-making and managing the risk. Social workers need to ensure that the family can manage the risk in the longer term without their involvement. The goal is to help families build their resilience and promote safety and emotional understanding between family members, which will help the children grow up to be healthy and competent adults.

You can find the full paper on the CSA Centre website.

Talk to us if you’re worried about child sexual abuse

Visit the sexual abuse learning programme on our Parents Protect website to find out more about how to keep children safe.

Our confidential child sexual abuse prevention helpline (0808 1000 900) is available for anyone with concerns about child sexual abuse. Callers do not need to give identifying information, so can remain anonymous. We speak to thousands of people every year and help them act to protect children and young people from sexual abuse and exploitation. You can also get support from our experienced advisors through our live chat and secure messaging service.

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