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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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"A spark is a little thing, yet it may kindle the world." ~Martin Farquhar Tupper

It's 5WAVES first anniversary!

One year ago today, the cofounders of 5WAVES synchronized across two continents and five time zones and met on Zoom for the first time. We all knew the crushing isolation of facing sibling sexual trauma alone, whether as survivors or parents. We had all been trying to reach and help others in our own ways. Then, within a week’s time, we all came into contact with Jane and everything fell into place for us to meet. It was the first time some of us had seen the face and heard the voice of another person who actually understood what we were going through. That day was the beginning of the connection and collaboration that became 5WAVES, Inc.

And look what we have accomplished in only one year!

  • We launched, the first-ever website dedicated to sibling sexual trauma and abuse, reaching readers in over one hundred countries on all seven continents

  • Jane gave her TEDx Talk, Giving Voice to Sibling Sexual Abuse, viewed by 200,000 and counting

  • Our co-founders have been featured on multiple podcasts

  • Brandy's Blog has given voice to individuals affected by sibling sexual trauma, both within and outside 5WAVES

  • We have offered lived experience perspective to the UK's Sibling Sexual Abuse National Project, Conference and follow-up initiatives

  • People Magazine published articles that will reach millions, in print and online, featuring Jane and Hope each telling their personal stories of sibling sexual trauma

  • 5WAVES incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the US, the first specifically dedicated to those affected by sibling sexual trauma and abuse

  • We published our organization website,, which includes information on prevention and guidance on responding to survivors and families

Most important, the five of us are no longer working alone and no longer facing our own journeys alone. And thousands of others also know they are not alone, because of our collective work in Worldwide Awareness, Voice, Education and Support.

We also wish to acknowledge all who have supported our cause and helped us get this far: Our families, our friends, those who have donated money or services, those who have promoted our stories on their platforms, those who have viewed and shared our resources. This is just the beginning!

#SiblingsToo Donate | 5WAVES

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Updated: Nov 25, 2022

Sibling sexual trauma can happen in ordinary families.

Do you find this hard to believe? Is it an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Is this something so revolting that it could only happen among “those kind of people”?

Can it really happen in loving families? Intact families? Families who teach their children right from wrong?

Like most people, I assumed sibling sexual trauma couldn’t possibly happen in an utterly typical family like mine. Until I discovered it already did. Until I found myself joining groups where new members introduce themselves with words like “I can’t believe I have to be here.” Groups with other parents who can no longer bear to look at family photos of movie nights and ball games and kids playing with the new puppy.

A parent* from one of those groups expressed it in this way: “Who will find out? What will they think of us? We are normal people, really!”

Social workers who spend their days working with at-risk, troubled or dysfunctional families, who find sibling sexual trauma there, can easily assume that it can only happen in at-risk, troubled, or dysfunctional families. Research that is based on social workers’ perceptions, or that looks only at cases that are reported and substantiated, runs the risk of over-representing sibling sexual trauma that happens in families where something else has already gone obviously, terribly wrong.

Make no mistake–when a sibling sexually traumatizes another sibling, something has gone obviously, terribly wrong. The family is now dysfunctional in at least that way. They need to face it and get help.

But are families where this trauma happens necessarily more dysfunctional than other families where this particular trauma does not occur? If you picked a random person off the street and dug into their family history, wouldn’t you be likely to find some kind of dysfunction fairly quickly?

Finkelhor and Baron (1986) asked a similar question in their early research about Risk Factors for Child Sexual Abuse: “If most reported child sexual abuse victims are from impoverished, disorganized families, is it because these children are at higher risk or simply because these victims are more readily detected?”

They reviewed a dozen studies which randomly sampled the general population. Their conclusion surprised many: “The most notable findings of the large-scale surveys do not concern who is at high risk but rather how large and widely distributed the risk appears to be. At one time it may have been thought that sexual abuse was confined to a small number of children in certain unusual family and social circumstances that might be readily identifiable. However, the findings from the surveys establish conclusively that this is not the case; sexual abuse is prevalent in remarkably large quantity in individuals from virtually all social, socioeconomic, and family circumstances.”

We need new, large, population-wide surveys that investigate the true prevalence and risk factors for sibling sexual trauma. But Finkelhor’s conclusions about child sexual abuse as a whole, replicated in the decades since, echo the sentiments of many with professional or lived experience of sibling sexual trauma: “The high rates across all social classes, ethnic backgrounds and family types is more notable than the differences within these subgroups.”

In other words, it does happen in ordinary families, of all types.

*shared with permission

FINKELHOR D, BARON L. Risk Factors for Child Sexual Abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 1986;1(1):43-71. doi:10.1177/088626086001001004

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