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:
Protect all children from future harm--physical, emotional, and mental.
Adults are responsible for protecting children from abusive behavior.
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.) WhatsOK.org, 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.