Updated: Sep 12

It’s not often we hear the voices of young people who have sexually harmed others. Many people are not interested in paying attention to them. But there is one topic that we should all turn to them to learn about: How can we prevent other children and teens from making the same destructive mistakes that they did?

This blog will highlight one published study which asked exactly that question, of fourteen young people who completed an Australian treatment program for harmful sexual behavior. They also interviewed six staff members who worked with them. The results give us important insights to consider. They also help us to see and understand the humanity of the children who offered their insights.

McKibbin, G., Humphreys, C., “Talking about child sexual abuse would have helped me”: Young people who sexually abused reflect on preventing harmful sexual behavior Child Abuse & Neglect 2017, 70:210-221

These young people collectively identified three things that would have helped most to prevent their tragic behavior:

  1. Earlier and better education about sexuality

  2. Addressing their own victimization

  3. Help in managing online sexual images.

All three suggestions are supported by other evidence, cited in comments below each.

1. Earlier and better education around sexuality

The teens expressed a need for education around body safety and sexuality starting early, definitely before puberty. They needed it to include specific help to deal with difficult situations and challenges–“more than periods and condoms.” Most of the respondents were boys, and they suggested the education for them would be more effective if delivered by a male adult. One respondent noted that he received no sexuality education after he had been transferred to a school for children with intellectual disabilities.

Early, frequent, comprehensive school-based education is the most effective known approach to prevent child sexual abuse, and to prevent children from sexually harming others

Prevention | Crimes against Children Research Center Finkelhor, 2009

It is unfortunately common for children with intellectual, social, behavioral, or physical delays to be excluded during body safety and sexuality education, despite their increased vulnerability to be exploited and in some cases, an increased risk to harm others without full understanding of what they are doing Advocating for Inclusive Sex Education for Students with Disabilities | Online MSW Programs

Rock the Talk® – Children With Disabilities - The Mama Bear Effect

2. Addressing their own victimization

Of the fourteen teens interviewed, twelve reported experiencing some type of previous sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. They felt that if their own maltreatment had been recognized and addressed, if someone had made it clear that what happened to them was not OK, it may have given them the knowledge and emotional stability to avoid passing on the hurt. One described wondering why anyone would want to do what was done to him. He immaturely and tragically reasoned that if he tried it on his brother, then he might finally understand.

Past abuse or witnessing of abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, has been found in approximately half of all children with problematic sexual behavior–particularly those who offend at an early age and within the family.

Intrafamilial adolescent sex offenders: psychological profile and treatment | Australian Institute of Criminology Grant et al, 2009

School-based body safety education and discussion of appropriate sexual boundaries has been shown to increase the likelihood that children will disclose sexual abuse. When disclosure does occur, and it leads to appropriate intervention and treatment, it decreases the risk of them experiencing and causing future sexual abuse.

The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse | Crimes Against Children Research Center Finkelhor, 2009

3. Help in managing online sexual images

Twelve of the fourteen teens reported that they had been exposed to pornography before their problematic sexual behavior started, and three said it played a direct role in their path to offending. One was a boy who wanted to try out what he had seen online, and did it with his sister.

The reach of online pornography has increased faster than the ability to study and publish research on the topic. Even research from the pre-smartphone era has shown that the average child comes into contact with pornography prior to puberty and that exposure to pornography increases the risk of carrying out harmful sexual behavior against other children. It is reasonable to assume that this is currently one of the biggest factors influencing children to act in ways that sexually harm their siblings or other children close to them. Therefore, another important step adults can take to prevent child-on-child sexual trauma is to minimize early exposure to pornography. As children grow, adults need to give them tools to understand that porn is not reality, to resist addictive habits, and how to report concerns or get help. This will not only reduce harmful behavior by children, but will also reduce their risk of being exploited by others online.

Psychological and Forensic Challenges Regarding Youth Consumption of Pornography: A Narrative Review Gasso et al, 2021

Young People, Sexuality and the Age of Pornography Massey et al, 2021

Child and Adolescent Pornography Exposure - Journal of Pediatric Health Care Hornor, 2020

Talking to children sooner and more frankly about sexuality, addressing childhood trauma, protecting children from early exposure to harmful sexual images and giving them tools to manage porn exposure as they grow. These steps will not prevent all problematic sexual behavior toward siblings or other children. But it will prevent some–and that is reason enough to do it.

stock image; does not represent images of adolescents participating in the study

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This was one dad’s description of the system’s response after his child disclosed sibling sexual trauma. He worked in building design and construction, an industry that requires a wide variety of experts to collaborate toward a long-term goal. Their success is dependent on a project manager who can coordinate timing and decision making.

When parents (including biological parents, step-parents, foster parents or guardians) discover sibling sexual trauma in the family they are raising, they are overwhelmed by a maelstrom of conflicting emotions and fears. They are facing a family crisis that they may not have even realized was a possibility. The logistical and financial challenges of responding to the needs of all children are daunting. In the midst of this, parents are too often thrust into the role of project manager.

When sibling sexual abuse is disclosed while the children are still minors, a dizzying array of professionals become involved. These may include:

  • Law enforcement officers

  • Child welfare services

  • Prosecuting attorney and staff

  • Defense attorney

  • Therapist(s) for children who were harmed

  • Therapist(s) for children who caused harm

  • Family/Child Custody Courts

  • Juvenile Court Judge

  • Juvenile Detention Staff

  • Medical doctors

  • Insurance companies

Each of these has their own role to play, their own expertise to offer, their own timeline and rules to follow. But rarely is any one assigned as project manager. No one is looking at the big picture, the whole family. No one is scrutinizing how a decision by one entity might affect the others and the family.

Most parents have little or no familiarity with these systems prior to their child’s disclosure. They do not know the jargon, the protocols, the job titles that they are suddenly dealing with. They don’t know what they need to know, let alone who to ask or how to advocate for their children. Yet they are forced to coordinate between systems they do not understand.

Personally, I have compared the experience of navigating the system to being dropped into the arena in The Hunger Games. I was suddenly forced to survive and defend my children in a world that was utterly unexpected, unfamiliar and disorienting. Being the parent of both survivor and offender, I was a known double agent, trusted by no one and able to trust no one. I discovered that even when asking for help or seeking information, my words could be misunderstood, or relayed till they were twisted in a high-stakes game of “telephone.” Sometimes I felt like my own worst enemy, when I tried to advocate for my kids but ended up making things worse.

The issues and decisions that parents must make range from the immediate and short-term, to decisions that will affect the long-term future of their children and their family. A few examples that are far from unusual:

  • Should I let police and child protection interview my children now, or get them a therapist first?

  • The social workers say I should remove my stepson from the home to keep his younger brother physically and emotionally safe. But he can’t live in a house with other children, and I fear that he will not be safe in the only other household available for him.

  • The court just ordered that I pay for my son’s residential treatment program. Don’t they realize this will leave nothing for the rest of us to live on–including the sister he violated?

  • They are saying the kids can’t attend the same school any more. Everyone will notice that my daughter is gone and will be asking her younger sister where she went. She feels this would be more triggering than seeing her older sister at school. Is there anything I can do?

  • The investigators closed the case because the child who caused the harm is too young to prosecute. But we can’t afford treatment, and the state won’t provide it unless a child is a victim of an official crime, or it’s court-ordered for the offender. How do I get both of my kids the help they need?

Sibling sexual harm is a whole-family trauma. Therapists and social workers can give crucial help and guidance–one hour at a time. The other 23 hours of the day, the other days of the week, parents are the children’s support and lifeline, caregiver and provider. Parental support is believed to be the most crucial factor in a child’s ability to heal from sexual trauma. It follows that providing support to parents will greatly increase their children’s prognoses. And it will reduce the chances of further family adversity, such as divorce, job loss, parental addiction, physical or mental illness.

Resources and staffing are chronically stretched in mental health and safeguarding settings. Any investment of time and resources to make parents more effective will reduce dependence on social services in the long run. Here are some steps for Child Advocacy Centers and other first-line responders to consider:

  • Provide parents up front with basic information about the processes and organizations that they will be dealing with, including information that may seem obvious to staff (for example, whether a phone number is OK to text, what is the role of a “District Attorney”)

  • Whenever possible, convey critical information in more than one way–verbally, in writing, in graphics or online. People learn in different ways. And in times of trauma and crisis they may have difficulty retaining the information they are given.

  • Suggest that parents keep a notebook, in writing or on their phone, to keep track of questions and notes from meetings and phone calls.

  • Sooner rather than later, help parents find their own source of mental health support.

  • Let parents know exactly what information you will share with whom.

  • Give parents direction on where to ask questions about various topics, including financial assistance. Include confidential sources of information and support such as the Stop It Now! or RAINN hotlines (US) or Stop It Now! (UK)

  • Consider recommending, which includes a wealth of general information on sibling sexual abuse aimed at families in need of support

  • Seek funding for a family advocate position who can serve in a project manager role, helping parents coordinate the multiple services and systems that their family needs, directing them to resources as needed, looking out for parents’ welfare and mental health.

  • If a separate family advocate is not available, look for ways for professionals to take the initiative in coordinating care between service providers, ideally assigning one to the role of family liaison and overseer.

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Updated: Aug 13

This guest blog was written by Lisa Hilton, CTRC-A, a sibling abuse survivor/thriver and Certified Trauma Recovery Coach who supports adult survivors of childhood trauma to "Transform Travesty into Triumph" More information and links to Lisa's services are listed below.

Why did you let it happen?

In the past this question was either thought of or asked of one who survived sexual assault or sexual abuse. Perhaps the victim/survivor may have even asked themselves the same question. Now it is offensive. It comes from a victim-shaming and victim-blaming mindset. Fortunately, society has come a long way. We have come to understand that in Intimate Partner Violence and child abuse cases, usually other abuses happened first, which escalated to physical violence. This pattern of behaviour is not much different when it comes to sibling sexual abuse [SSA]

Many chalk up sexual activity between siblings as normal curiosity, or harmless sexual exploration. Depending on the age [chronological and emotional], the frequency and the intent, this may be true. Yet, sibling sexual activity that goes beyond mere curiosity is more common that many realize. If one of them feels victimized, this can be traumatizing. The impact of SSA is equal to if not greater than other forms of sexual abuse. What is not usually considered is what went on between these siblings before the sexual activity.

This blog sheds light on the other abuses that may have laid the foundation.

When it comes to SSA I have not heard of cases where a sibling randomly starts touching another sibling’s private areas who are beyond the *exploring* developmental stage. Depending on the ages of the two, there are countless examples where coercion or trickery in the guise of games, experimenting, promises of toys/money/candy, etc., were used. These all duped the other sibling into complying.

Questions surface: How often were the siblings left alone? What about an older sibling’s *authority*? Was there emotional abuse like tattling, ridicule, belittling, etc, or threats of physical harm? What about physical abuse amongst the siblings? How often was there hitting, punching, pushing, slapping or even tickling? What about screaming, yelling or name-calling?

Emotional abuse and or physical abuse or threats of such can be used to lay the foundation for a sibling to submit to the sexual will of the other. One is clearly trying to dominate.

NOTE: When there is oppression and domination of any kind, this is not sibling rivalry, it is sibling abuse. Oppression is in the eyes of the beholder. It is not harmless.

Perhaps the one harmed experienced some physical pleasure of the autonomic nature, and the instigator said things like: “You enjoyed it; you could have stopped if you wanted to.” Words like these result in emotional shame and unwarranted guilt. The instigator shifts the blame away from self onto the other. So, the harmed sibling may continue to acquiesce - suffering deep emotional damage.

Perhaps the harmed sibling was told, ‘Mom or Dad won’t believe you if you tell’ or, “We’ll both get into trouble if you say anything”, adding to that, “if you tell I’ll punch your lights out”. Thus, more responsibility for the abuse is heaped onto the harmed sibling, resulting in further suffering. The pressure to remain silent is undeniable.

Almost always, there is some level of *preparation* that is used. For example, when trickery is used the targeted sibling may not feel manipulated until it’s too late. When physical or emotional abuse is used the one harmed may feel afraid and powerless to say No as shown above. These forms of grooming are designed to get the sibling to submit. Subsequently this creates complicit trauma because the harmed sibling believes they are willing participants. This results in tremendous shame. The psychological damage that ensues is unspeakable. I have listened to many SSA survivors and they share similar experiences – the sexual abuse came with physical and or emotional abuse from the same perpetrating sibling.

Truth is – SSA rarely stands alone as the only abuse the target sibling suffers. As demonstrated, SSA often comes with emotional and or physical abuse. Sibling sexual abuse is complicated, often a clustered abuse. Because of easy access, SSA can go on for months and years. There are stories of brothers who still attempt to rape sisters when both are adults, married with children. This shows that the offending sibling can view the other as an object for self-gratification. In cases like this it is all about power and control.

It is helpful to have the conversation on what’s going on where one sibling crosses the boundaries and disrespects the other.

Let’s be curious about what’s happening behind the scenes. Let’s remain open to the fact that sibling sexual abuse usually comes with emotional and/or physical abuse – a clustered abuse.

Let’s take the shame off the shoulders of the one who was harmed. They didn’t *let it happen*.

Lisa Hilton, CTRC-A, a sibling abuse survivor/thriver, is a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach who supports adult survivors of childhood trauma Transform Travesty into Triumph. She works online with local and international clients. She does 1:1 and closed group coaching through Hilton Coaching and Consulting.

Upcoming workshops:

Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Abuse, which is it? – TBD

Trauma Recovery & Hope – October 5 – November 2, 2022, Wednesdays, 5-7 pm Pacific

She facilities a support group for Sibling Abuse Survivors – on the last Monday of each month


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