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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: Feb 20

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.


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Updated: Jul 14, 2022

What happens when your daughter discloses that her half-brother sexually abused her? I never in my wildest dreams imagined it could ever be a possibility. Does such a thing exist? Do siblings sexually abuse one another?

Those of you reading this unfortunately know it does exist! The pain is heart wrenching, the anguish is real. How do you navigate the torn loyalties, how do you support both?

For me, I went into rescue mode. This was a boy who I helped raise for over 10 years. If I didn’t protect him, my family would fall apart. My marriage would certainly be over. My initial thoughts when disclosure occurred was, “He must have been abused himself, these are not normal teenage behaviours.” My husband and I discussed this with my stepson, we were so empathetic and understanding, we assured him he had our unconditional love and support. This was vital so he felt comfortable to open up. Thankfully there was no prior abuse; however, that left me with a huge dilemma. What was the reasoning behind this awful behaviour that caused so much damage and destruction to our family? There was no simple answer.

The days, weeks and months went by. They felt like years. My heart yearned for the little boy I helped raise. Where did it all go wrong? In those moments of sadness and grief, my irrational thoughts and anger kicked in. “How could you feel this way, you cannot be sad or worried for him? You are not fit to be a mother, your daughter should be the most important person, how would she feel if she knew you were thinking this way? She would disown you; she should have your full loyalty. He is not even your son. You are despicable…” I suppressed my feelings of disgust, hurt and anger, swallowing them whole, each one feeling like a dagger. I would not let myself feel them or let them have a negative impact. He too was a child after all, a child I had helped raise. A child who I loved and was proud of. Although biologically not mine, I had invested so much in him, did everything any biological mother would.

I was in a constant battle with myself, so many conflicting feelings. I punished myself for being a loyal, loving, empathetic compassionate person. My shadow side wanted to destroy the compassion. I was in constant turmoil. I felt like I had so many different personas and was completely out of control on the inside, moving from one emotion to another in a matter of seconds. My head was constantly spinning. I wanted to scream all the time.

I tried to bury it all, I needed to stay focused and take my emotions out of the equation. I put on a mask. I was logical, calm, focused, stable and pragmatic. I had to be, if I wasn’t, who was going to sort this mess out and ensure the kids were ok? I had to ensure that my stepson’s mother and I worked closely together to ensure that my stepson felt supported and got the best possible help and intervention. That in itself was extremely challenging at times. I was seeing what was best for the family as a whole, her main concern was her son.

Although my daughter had a therapist, I became her therapist, I was her everything. I was the person she told every detail to. I was the one that lay at night consoling her. I was the one that had to explain every step of the process to her, why family members said and did certain things that she couldn’t understand. Why they ‘were taking his side’ in her mind.

The first few months, I held it all together pretty well, but you can only do that for so long before the volcano erupts and emotions resurface. Everything started to become all about my stepson and it felt like my daughter was being lost in the process. It felt like he had an army behind him to provide support but my daughter only had me. The more I saw her pain, the more distance it put between my stepson and I.

I felt I couldn’t be open and honest with my husband, or anyone for that matter. I was too ashamed about my thoughts and feelings. My daughter expressed her pain and anguish to me but would not mention a single thing to her father or anyone else. Others didn’t see the full extent of the damage that was done or understand how disclosure brings everything to the fore. The safety mechanisms she once had as survival tools had disappeared because everything was now out in the open.

What really helped me navigate the turmoil and ambivalence was journaling. I allowed myself to fully express those negative thoughts and feelings without feeling ashamed, judged or that I was a terrible person. I was justified to feel angry, enraged, disgusted, hurt, betrayed, disappointed, etc. Who wouldn’t, when their child has been hurt so much, and seeing someone they love suffer? It doesn’t matter who the person that harmed them was, the pain is very real. But when it is another sibling, that brings a whole new layer and set of complexities.

It was only through acknowledging my true feelings did the hurt and anger start to dissipate. I was able to breathe again because I had expressed them in a safe way without hurting anyone’s feelings. For those that feel ashamed of these emotions, please don’t, they are valid.

Through reflection and self-awareness, I was able to recognise that my emotions were related to the behaviours of my stepson and the damage they did. They were not a result of him as a person. I think it is very important to make the distinction between the person and their behaviour. For me, separating the behaviour from the person was freeing. It allowed me to grieve in peace for what my family had lost–the original family unit–and still show compassion, love and empathy towards my stepson. My daughter does not want a relationship with him, I don’t know if she ever will, but that is her decision. I have maintained some contact; we are not as close as we were, but we have found our ‘new normal’ that works for all concerned.

To anyone navigating this journey, my advice is be patient with yourself. We all hope and have certain expectations in the beginning but they can change quite often, due to a number of different factors. There is no right or wrong in relation to feelings and there is no rule book or guide in these situations. You can and will get through, you may just need to adjust your expectations.

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