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Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Note: This article is directed at parents whose children are all now over age 18.

Most children who have been sexually abused by a sibling don’t tell anyone until they are an adult–if at all. Many will wait until both parents have died to bring it up in the family. If you are a parent and your adult child has taken the immensely difficult step to share the long-held, devastating secret of a sexual experience with a sibling, it is crucial to take it seriously.

This has to be one of the most difficult situations a parent could face. It’s too late to intervene. There’s a lot you cannot do once your children are adults. You may feel torn between your children, between your past and your present. Still, your reaction and the actions you take will mean a lot to the child who came to you, any other children who were involved, and the whole family. Your support can still truly help.

Realizing first and foremost that every situation is unique, here are few suggestions, including things to be prepared to encounter:

Get yourself support. This can be professional therapy or counseling, confiding in a trusted friend or relative, finding a peer support group–or ideally, a combination. Your own emotional support will be a lifeline as you navigate a situation that is complicated and humiliating for you as well as your children. You may have to grieve the family you thought you had; you may question your own identity as a parent. It is normal to have a multitude of strong feelings, including guilt, shame, failure, anger, fear, betrayal, hopelessness, confusion, ambivalence. This will be a marathon, not a sprint; an obstacle course, not a straightforward process. It is important to know you are not alone. There are places to connect with other parents in your situation, which can be very helpful.

Learn about trauma and memory. You need to understand that even if many of the details that your adult child remembers might not add up with circumstances or timelines you know to be true, the gist of what happened should still be believed. It is not at all unusual for people who have experienced sexual trauma at the hands of a family member to have no conscious memory of the experience for years or even decades. The truth of how they feel about it and how it is affecting them is paramount right now.

Start learning about childhood trauma and the ways it may be affecting your child now as an adult. Try to understand that when your adult child starts to talk about and deal with their past sexual trauma, their memories and emotions are beginning at the age they were when it happened. Some parents find it helpful to picture their child at that age when talking to them. Your adult child is likely to have strong feelings, which may seem to be contradictory. Their feelings and beliefs are coming from a child’s fear, not an adult’s reasoning. It is also helpful to gain insight into any trauma that may have affected you as a child, and also the way that this current crisis may be affecting you in the present.

Let your child take the lead. Make it a priority to honor the choices of your child who was sexually violated, on decisions such as who they want to see at family gatherings, who is told what, whether to report to authorities, whether they go to therapy. The survivor had their power and control taken away when the abuse happened, and they need opportunities to take control now as part of their healing. You do still have the right to continue a relationship with the child who harmed them, if you choose, but you may have to do so in a way that respects the survivor child’s needs for space and healing.

Be careful about boundaries. Identifying and respecting the boundaries between yourself and your children will be especially important as your family moves forward. There are many good books and courses about boundaries, to introduce the concept or deepen your understanding. 12-step groups are also a good source of resources and support in this area. (Most Al-Anon groups welcome anyone navigating difficult family relationships, whether or not alcohol is a factor.)

Your children may express anger and blame toward you. The child who survived may be convinced that you knew the abusive behavior was going on, even if you did not. Even the child who caused the harm may take out their anger, shame, or blame on you. Your job for now is to listen, to validate your children’s feelings, and to acknowledge any grain of truth or new revelations in what they share with you. If you can resist the urge to push back or defend yourself, you will increase the chance that they will feel supported enough to keep on healing, and that your relationship will survive and become more positive eventually. Expect things to get worse before they get better.

Expect ambivalence, changing or contradictory attitudes or decisions, on the part of your adult child. Expect that they probably didn’t tell you everything right away. Realize you probably won’t ever know all that you want to know or have all your questions answered.

What about the child who did wrong? It’s common for the child who caused the harm to initially deny it if confronted directly. It is quite possible that an adult who caused harm as a child or teen does not consciously remember what they did or does not realize how significantly it affected their sibling. If you discuss the subject with them, strive for safety and support, and avoid stigma and shame. It may be helpful to give them resources they can use confidentially, as this may be a more realistic next step for them than admitting their actions to you.

How can I protect my grandchildren now? It can be helpful to educate yourself about the difference between children’s harmful sexual behavior and adult sexual abuse of children. The sibling who caused sexual abuse as a child is not necessarily still a danger to the children now in their life. But you can and should share information about steps that all families should take to protect children against child sexual abuse, and about signs to look for and steps to take if you are worried about any adult’s behavior with children.

It may feel as if there’s nothing you can do. You may worry that your initial reaction was more harmful than helpful. But what you do from this day forward still matters, immensely. Your belief and support of your adult child survivor is a crucial gift that only you can give. Your unconditional love and acceptance of the child who caused the harm may be a lifeline to that child as well.

(If you are an adult who survived sibling sexual trauma as a child, there are resources for you here.)

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Updated: Jul 14, 2022

This is a joint blog by Brandy Black, and fellow 5WAVES member Jane Epstein. Jane recently gave the first talk on the TEDx platorm on the subject of sibling sexual trauma. Here she shares a critical point in her journey as a survivor.


It was the morning I’d typed the words in my journal, “I want to die, die, die.” I felt small. My life felt out of order, and I could not understand why. What was wrong with me?

I had tried marriage counseling. I had tried one-on-one counseling and antidepressants. I gave up alcohol. Nothing was working.

The marriage counselor had said at a recent session, "Jane, your anger does not match the circumstances." I have had a temper all my life. I thought it was just part of my make up. All my screaming and anger at my husband and the kids.

My life was like a puzzle. The pieces were there, but they just didn’t fit. One by one, I started to turn over every painful moment in my life, scrutinizing them for answers. But there were so many! I was overwhelmed.

There was one piece that I’d kept off to the side. I was sure it didn’t fit. It wasn’t a big deal. It couldn’t possibly be the cause of so much anger and suffering. But I had tried every other piece already. So I scheduled a one-on-one with the marriage counselor.


I struggled to find the words to use. “My brother messed with me when I was 6 years old until I was 12.” I stated it matter of factly, thinking this would prove to him and myself that it was not a big deal, that it was not affecting me.

The therapist remained seated and did not move. Perhaps he was trying to conceal his surprise. He asked me questions, gently. “How long did this go on? How did it start? Have you ever told anyone?”

I looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact. “It's not a big deal, is it? He was my brother. I mean, it never went too far, and he apologized. I've dealt with it.”

The therapist tilted his head to the left and leaned in towards me as though he was about to break out in prayer for me. He kept his composure, trying not to alarm me.

I started to feel like I had just leaked a big secret, and I wanted to take it back. “I was never afraid of him. I mean, he never threatened me.”

“This is kind of a big deal.”

“Are you sure this is a big deal? Aren't kids curious?”

He reassured me. “Yes, kids are curious. Once or twice. Curiosity does not span the course of six years.”

“But I'm guilty. I sought him out....I...even tried to, um, seduce him. I asked for it, so who am I to be fucked up over it?”

“Your body reacted the way it was designed to react. The touch may have felt good. It explains why you became hypersexual. It's what you were taught. It made relationships and sex transactional.”

I kept fighting back. “But it was just my brother.”

“Yes. It's a complex relationship and situation.”

I didn't want to go there. But there was a grain of truth here, small as a grain of salt, but still, something to look at. Could this be why I’d always felt full of shame, not worthy of love?

“You need to tell your husband.”

“No, I can't! He will blame all of our marital problems on me now for sure!”

“He loves you. He is loyal to you. He would want to know.”



There are generally two reactions to harmful sexual contact between siblings. One is to deem it too repulsive to consider, too shameful to acknowledge. The other reaction is to minimize it–it’s not really sexual assault; it’s “not a big deal;” it’s “just kids being kids.” To be clear, a bit of mutual sexual curiosity or exploration between peers or siblings is considered normal. But ironically, this reality is too often used as a route to reaction number one–an excuse to deny the existence of real harm, real abuse, real trauma.

Children who are subjected to abusive sexual behavior by a sibling experience every bit as much harm, trauma, and shame as those who experience other types of sexual abuse and assault. Consider these factors:

  • Sibling sexual trauma tends to start at a younger age and last for a longer time than any other type of sexual abuse.

  • Siblings are likely to spend a lot of time together–so there are frequent opportunities for abusive behavior

  • Children who are being harmed are living in constant contact with the person whose abusive behavior is causing the harm, thus their sense of safety is constantly compromised.

  • The betrayal of trust and safety when a child is sexually violated by a sibling is on par with parental incest.

  • Sibling sexual trauma is so taboo that people who have been affected by it experience extreme isolation. Many survivors live decades without even knowing what to call it or realizing it has happened to anyone else.

  • The ongoing and hidden nature of sibling sexual trauma very often causes survivors to experience dissociation, amnesia, PTSD, and other physical and behavioral conditions caused by stress and shame turned inward.



Weeks later, I was back in the marriage counselor’s office, this time together with my husband. Again, my eyes were on the floor and my heart was in my throat. I somehow got the words out. “My brother messed with me when I was a kid.”

Would he mock me? Blame me? Turn on me in disgust? Accuse me of being overdramatic?

Thankfully, none of the above.

“Jane, I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

That wasn’t the end of my troubles. My life and my marriage weren’t “fixed” that day. But my therapist’s and my husband’s supportive responses allowed my journey of healing to begin.


My husband had lived for eight years with a survivor of sibling sexual trauma–and he had no idea. With sibling sexual trauma suspected to be the most common form of child sexual abuse, there is a very good chance that either you or someone you know well has been affected by it. Even if you don’t know who they are, you can still let them know they are not alone. Simply share this blog. Watch and share my TEDx Talk about sibling sexual abuse. Connect to me at

Learn more and find more helpful resources at, such as:

Where is the line between normal curiosity and abusive behavior?

How is sibling sexual trauma different than other child sexual abuse?

Should I tell someone?

What should I do if someone tells me it happened to them–adult or child?

What if I think I might have crossed the line myself?

photo: Maria Socolof

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Updated: Mar 31, 2022

As a parent of sibling sexual trauma, I have found support in a handful of web-based groups. A few are specifically for parents of sibling sexual trauma and others are for parents of any child who was sexually abused. By definition, I am meeting other parents who are motivated to seek out support and information online, and we may not represent all parents in our situation. But I have yet to encounter a parent who didn’t feel deeply that they failed their child. Keeping our children safe and protecting their sexuality are among a parent's most basic, important jobs. But even the most caring, proactive caregiver cannot protect their child from a threat they cannot see and do not understand.

It’s a refrain I hear over and over, with countless variations on the details but the same tragic result. “I did what I was supposed to. I was so careful. But I had no idea I had to worry about ____. And now it’s too late.”

We are the parents who did background checks on our childcare providers. We talked to our children about what parts of their body were private. We didn’t let them have sleepovers unless we knew the family well. We checked in with them and reassured them they should tell us if anything made them feel bad or scared. We looked to see if there were sex offenders living in the neighborhood. We monitored our children's media and online habits. We even talked to them about unwanted sexual experiences in our own childhoods.

But, almost without fail, the violation came from the person we least expected. In most cases we hadn’t even consciously judged the person to be safe; rather, the thought that this person or circumstance might not be safe never even entered our minds. We had no idea that our child’s sense of safety, trust, and sexual integrity could be forever shattered by:

  • a biological parent

  • a biological sibling

  • a same-gender sibling, step-sibling, friend, or cousin

  • a female

  • a grandparent we had known to be a good parent

  • a favorite aunt or uncle

  • everyone’s favorite teacher, coach, clergy, camp counselor

After the fact, we look back and see that one thing we could have done that would have saved our child. We wonder how we could have so badly misjudged the character of the person who is responsible.

Yet realistically, how could we have known? Very often, there simply were no warning signs. Who is able to imagine that their own partner, parent, friend, sibling–even their own child–could possibly sexually violate a child? Do we need to trust no one, to teach our children that everyone in their lives is a potential threat? Wouldn’t that just take away their ability to trust and feel safe in a different way?


During the 1980’s, AIDS was an emerging pandemic. It was new, untreatable, deadly, incredibly stigmatized and feared. Medical care providers realized they needed to protect themselves from contact with the blood of HIV+ patients. They started to use protective gear such as gloves, face shields, and disposable needles. But they quickly ran into a dilemma–when should they take precautions? How could they determine which patients were likely to carry the HIV virus? Many people either didn’t know, or weren’t able or willing to tell their provider their HIV status. In addition, the sight of a doctor putting on gloves and a gown signaled “AIDS!” to everyone in view. Patients felt humiliated and offended, and sometimes even refused treatment to avoid the stigma.

Rather quickly, it became apparent that no one could tell who was HIV+ and who was not by looking, or even by asking. So the strategy of universal precautions was born. Anyone providing direct medical care would use bloodborne pathogen protocols with every patient, no matter how unlikely it seemed that they might be carrying the HIV virus. Everyone was protected, and no one was stigmatized. It has become so commonplace that today we would be alarmed to be examined by a doctor not wearing gloves.


What if we made universal precautions a cornerstone of child sexual abuse prevention? Not the only strategy, but a first line of protection? What if we shifted away from trying to sniff out who to trust and who not to trust, and toward identifying habits and behaviors that we can all take, all the time, to reduce opportunities for children to be subject to sexual trauma?

Some child sexual abuse is caused by individuals who are very motivated and calculating, who will find a way no matter what. But a whole lot more is made possible by impulse and opportunity. This is especially true of sexual trauma caused by siblings and other young people, and of first-time offenses. If we can prevent a young person from crossing the line that first time, we save both children--the child inching towards that line of abusive behavior and the child who may fall victim to this behavior--from trauma and shame and heartache.

To protect children, we need to set aside our stereotypes and look at the reality of child sexual trauma. We need to open our minds to face who can be responsible for it, in what situations, and what leads up to such a devastating choice. We need to be willing to take universal precautions, even within our own families.

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