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Updated: Mar 11

Young people who have sexually harmed a sibling also spend time with other children–other siblings, cousins, peers. It may be necessary to stop or limit contact between a child who has caused sexual harm and other children in their life–sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently.

This leads to a difficult question: How should adults explain these precautions to the other children? How does a parent tell a young child that their favorite cousin won’t be coming to visit any more? Or that their own sibling will be moving out of the home?

The best answer for any individual situation will depend on dozens of circumstances: the age of all children involved, the amount of time they have spent together in the past, the severity of the known offense, the type of response that is needed, family dynamics, the child’s individual personality and ways of perceiving the world.

But there are three principles to keep in mind while evaluating any situation:

  1. Protect all children from future harm--physical, emotional, and mental.

  2. Adults are responsible for protecting children from abusive behavior.

  3. It’s always possible to share more information later, but once it is shared, there’s no taking it back.

Adults have the primary responsibility for protecting any children who might be at immediate risk of harm. It is not appropriate to tell children to be wary of another child for their own protection. If children need to be separated or follow a safety plan, an explanation will be needed. But the responsibility for keeping the children separate and/or supervised should always be on the adults.

Adults need to consider what the nonoffending children are ready to hear, based on age and maturity. It's probably not necessary at any age to give sexual specifics. It may not even be necessary to say the harmful behavior was sexual in nature. For example, parents might tell a young child that their sibling or cousin or family friend did something that was dangerous and could hurt other people, so grownups are helping that child to learn how to not do it again, and until then they can't play together. As children grow and mature, parents and other adults can share more information as needed.

Another big consideration is protecting the victim’s privacy, both now and in the future. If other children start treating a child differently, or start asking them questions about what happened, it adds to their burden of trauma and shame and can delay healing. It may seem appropriate to tell others that a very young child was sexually victimized, but the child may feel differently as they grow older.

Protecting the survivor’s privacy could take the form of telling others that the child who was removed hurt someone, without specifying who that “someone” is. It is best to err on the side of telling less, until the child who was harmed has made a mature decision that it’s OK to share their story.

Children are naturally, appropriately curious. They are likely to wonder and imagine what might have happened or what a child might have done. Explaining why children need to be separated or have different rules in place going forward is not a once-and-done task. Parents need to leave the door open for future questions and conversations and take the initiative to check in again.

If adults have decided to share that the harmful behavior was sexual in nature, it is vitally important to provide safe places for a child to go with their curiosity, including future conversations with parents or other trusted adults. (See The Mama Bear Effect’s guidance for talking to children and recommended books for various ages.) If the family does not yet have internet monitoring and filtering set up across all devices, this is the time to add it. (See Defending Young Minds’ guidance on internet safety.), operated by Stop It Now!, is a safe place for teens to ask questions that they are not comfortable sharing with their parents. They also have a list of resources to provide safe, reliable information to teens about sexuality.

Parents and other adults are right to be concerned about the possibility that other children in the family may have already been sexually harmed by the same child or teen. This is an important time to do a body safety check-in, and either review or introduce the concept of body safety, sexual boundaries and consent in an age-appropriate way. (See Darkness to Light’s tips on talking to children about body safety and boundaries, and scroll down this page for Mama Bear's tips on body safety check-ins.) Be sure to keep the door open for future conversations. Most children who have been harmed take time to be ready to tell about it, even to a caring and supportive parent.

It may be best to keep this body safety check-in separate from the explanation of why a sibling, cousin, babysitter or friend will be taking a break from the child’s life. One reason for this is to protect the privacy and safety of the child who caused the harm. Even a child who has caused sexual harm is still a child–a child who needs care and protection, whether adults feel they deserve it or not. In addition, sexually abusive behavior toward children is heartbreakingly common. It is possible that the child has been sexually harmed by someone who is not on their parents’ or caregivers’ radar at all. A general conversation opens the door for a child to disclose and get help for any sexual harm they might have experienced up to that point.

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In this guest blog, Krysta Lyn Nowlin expresses her raw reality as a mother in the aftermath of sibling sexual abuse. It does contain some graphic details of the effects of sexual abuse on children and families.

So many mixed emotions..

It's like like, how do I know how to feel??

I've took the last 2 years to focus on all my kids feelings mostly, making sure they're okay...

But how do I feel? That's a huge drop bomb question I haven't even acknowledged really...

As a parent, being stuck in the middle of a situation like that, you don't get a chance to acknowledge how you feel. You don't get to decide to pick a side or so easily or quickly make those difficult decisions that you know are going to be the right ones for everyone in the long run...

While I died inside... I stood by the boy everyday who hurt my little girl, and tried to make sure he got every single tool possible to ensure he never did what he did again....

While I died inside I listened week after week to what he'd done to her.....

While I died inside I watched my baby girl clam up in those hard therapy sessions.. not wanting to talk.... not wanting me to leave...

While I died inside, I remember her screaming in the middle of the night from the nightmares and the "monster" in her room...

While I died inside I showed up to every single court date, therapy session, probation visit, court recommended class, and everything else he had to take...

While I died inside I held my little girl in the doctor appointments as we tried to get her UTIs under control... and the exams, and all the medication she had to take just to make a bowel movement.

I died even more than a little inside when I was forced to give my sweet baby enemas bc she just wasn't pooping, and wouldn't let it out.... she would go septic before long if I didn't make her. And all I could see was the fear in her eyes looking at me, while I cried and apologized over and over and over....

While I died inside I did every possible thing I could to insure my other children knew they were loved and important too....

While I died inside I watched my marriage crumble as the stress of all this took over our lives, but we held on by every tiny last straw....

While I died inside I took on all the overwhelming home schooling bc of the fear of my girls leaving me... I took it all on my shoulders....

While I died inside I isolated.... suffering daily... migraines, pain, stress, sadness, depression.....

Not only did I die inside... I wanted to actually die....

Nothing prepares us for pain. Nothing prepares us for grief or trauma.

I have survived... even though I was dying, I found my light...

While I did what I could in the storm, I'm coming out even stronger!

I'm no longer dying, but I'm coming alive and I'm going to live.

I release my son. While I hope he never hurts again, his baggage is no longer mine to carry...

I did all I could do for him... As a mother should. I tried. I did it all. For years it was ME. I may not be his mother by blood but I stood by him through his darkest times.... even when I hated him... I was there and showed up. I never missed a beat. So letting him go, is a big step for me.

My daughter however, she is first. Her safety is first. She is the victim, she is number 1, and the suffering she endured bc of him, I'll never forgive....

So how do I feel.....


Disgusted.... a little...

Hurt... definitely...

But am I healing??

Absolutely! && nobody is going to slow me down! ✨️❤️

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Holidays come in many forms. There are public holidays that celebrate culture and religion. There are birthdays and anniversaries. There are life and family milestones: weddings, funerals, graduations.

Holidays exist to bring together past and present, to unite families and cultures. Holiday rituals are designed to invoke memories of the past and create memories to anchor the future. Once-in-a-lifetime events mark the passage of time, recognize changing identities and roles, celebrate accomplishments, create ways to say hello and goodbye to the people most important to us.

Holidays and celebrations are truly more than “just another day.” They are important and have existed across all centuries and cultures of human existence. When anyone is unable to share and enjoy holidays and milestones, it is a real and significant loss.

Unfortunately, the same features which make holidays and milestones special are what make them so painful when family relationships are broken. Few types of brokenness are more complicated than sibling sexual trauma. And it is seldom the only issue that extended families bring to the table when they gather. Traumatic memories, conflict, loss and grief, stress, alcohol, secrets, differing expectations all combine to bring days of incredible stress, sadness, and possibly the danger of further abuse or violence. Losses, traumas, and burdens that are manageable or pushed aside in day-to-day life may bring unbearable loneliness, anger, or fear, not only during celebrations and special days, but also during times of anticipation and planning.

Holidays of all types are known to be difficult after a loved one dies. That doesn’t make the day any easier, but it does offer a framework to support people who are grieving and acknowledge their struggles. Sibling sexual trauma, along with all types of intra-familial abuse, is very likely to be hidden, even from others in the family. The hiddenness increases the stress and trauma exponentially, while blocking opportunities for support or validation of all types of difficult emotions and reactions.

When sibling sexual trauma is disclosed, the hiddenness is gone, but the drama often increases. Family members may exert pressure to continue past traditions unchanged or to include everyone together at the same time. Family members–such as older generations raised in a family-first culture, those who are still in shock or denial, those whose past sexual trauma has gone unrecognized or unhealed–may exert a lot of pressure to include everyone together. There may be conflict over who should be told about the abusive behavior, and how much. Take the example of a sensitive and common dilemma: A survivor does not want or is not safe to celebrate together with the sibling who has violated them, but also is not ready to disclose their story to the whole family.

There are so many possibilities, so many factors, so many differences. There is no universally right or wrong way to approach holidays and celebrations in a family affected by sibling sexual trauma. But here are a few guiding principles, a few starting thoughts and considerations.

Everyone in the family is carrying some kind of pain and trauma. It is normal for past memories to bring grief or anger or numbness. It is OK to feel any kind of emotion. But accepting and embracing an emotion doesn’t mean it is OK to express that emotion to any person, any time, in any way. And it doesn’t justify making decisions based only on those emotions.

Ring Theory is a useful tool that can guide a family in holiday planning, as well as choosing appropriate people to lean on for emotional support. It gives a visual image that reminds us to center the needs of the people who are most directly and personally affected by any kind of abuse or tragedy. Those who have experienced sibling sexual trauma would be at the center of the circle, their needs given priority. They should be allowed to express emotions outward toward anyone in their family or support network. Their wishes regarding who they see and when, who they tell and what, should be respected. Parents, in a middle-level ring, need support from those outside the immediate family. But they should not lean on a child for emotional support, even if that child is now an adult. The current safety of vulnerable family members, particularly children, should take precedence over the desires of adults.

There may be ways to include family members in events and milestones without having everyone in the same room at the same time. Ceremonies can be livestreamed, adult siblings might bring their families to visit grandparents on different days, meals can be shared in a public space such as a restaurant. Most funeral directors are experienced in accommodating complicated family dynamics. It’s fine to ask about finding a way for everyone to say goodbye to a loved one, while also respecting needs for space and safety from other family members. As time goes on, the wishes and needs of everyone in the family may change and celebrations can also change.

If family members are unable to offer adequate support, it may need to come from outside the family. Look for friends who can be on call, or ways to spend time with others who are lonely or alone during a holiday or celebration. It is a good idea to add numbers for hotlines, helplines, and emergency or crisis care in your phone contacts, easy to access if the day becomes overwhelming.

For a fuller discussion: Trauma, Drama, & Yo' Mama: Surviving the Holidays This is a radio show recorded in 2016 in the US, which starts with discussion of conflict over politics, but at 15:00 moves to an excellent discussion of dealing with past family trauma during holidays, including a realistic and respectful discussion of many options.

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