Do I Have to Choose One Child Over Another?
“Not only does my adult daughter never want to see the sister who abused her again, but she doesn’t want me to stay in contact with her either. I can’t bring myself to turn my back on my own child, no matter what she did. What should I do?”
“If we hire a lawyer to represent our son, will CPS play hardball and take custody of our daughter?”
“My therapist is the only one I dare to confide in that I’m actually more worried about my older son right now. And even she doesn’t understand. Is it wrong that I still care about him after what he did?”
This is a spot where being the parent of sibling sexual trauma is different than any other kind of child sexual abuse. If an adult, or a child outside the immediate family, has sexually abused a child, it is expected and encouraged that the family will cut off contact with that individual, even if it means divorce. Survivors and families are allowed and even encouraged to turn their anger on the one who caused the harm, to seek prosecution and revenge, to demonize and label. The family may pull together by uniting around a common enemy.
Sibling sexual trauma requires a far more complicated and nuanced approach. Parents who discover that their own child has violated another of their children are in a devastating position that no one could be prepared for, and that no one else truly understands. There is no roadmap for how to react or how to feel when one of your own children has sexually violated your other child/ren.
Because sibling sexual trauma is seldom reported, professionals who regularly work with sexual assault survivors may have trouble considering options that differ from the familiar narrative of demonizing the one who initiated the harm. Parents, offenders, and even survivors have to navigate a maze of expectations and laws that were not written with any thought that the offender might have also been a child, let alone a family member. Parents are left in an impossible situation. And often the sibling who was harmed still loves and misses the sibling who caused their trauma. Step-parents have another layer of dilemmas.
It is absolutely valid for parents to continue to be concerned for the welfare of both children, to do their best to support both, to stay in contact with both. When the child who caused the harm is still a minor, parents have a responsibility to care for them, no matter what the parent is feeling in the moment. They still need to be allowed to advocate for the offending child’s welfare and to support them in any way that is appropriate. And although parents may no longer have a legal responsibility if the child is now an adult, their desire to care for and support them is still valid. (More guidelines for parents whose children have disclosed as an adult in this blog.)
It is also absolutely OK for a parent to focus their efforts first and foremost on the welfare of the survivor. If they are no longer the custodial parent of the offender, they may choose to minimize contact with them, out of solidarity with and concern for the survivor. It is normal for anyone in the family to express strong emotions toward each other. It is OK for family members to hold a variety of differing and even conflicting emotions toward other family members at the same time. No one should be limited or criticized based on expectations of what they “should” be feeling.
If multiple children were involved as either causing or experiencing harm, it is likely that they will each follow a unique path to healing and/or taking responsibility. This further complicates a parent's task. And any siblings who were not directly involved in harmful or abusive behavior still have their own path of coping with the changes in their sibling relationships and their family.
There are no easy answers here, no litmus tests for what to do and when. There are so many individuals’ feelings and choices and reactions involved, and so many unknowns. Anyone’s plans, hopes, or expectations may change as the situation unfolds. There is no guarantee that a survivor will understand or accept the parents’ concern for the sibling who hurt them. There is no way to predict how other siblings or extended family will react. There’s no guarantee a person who has acted inappropriately will ever admit to it. A child or parent who expresses desire for reconciliation one day may give up on the process the next. But one who is adamant they will never reconcile may change their mind in time.
Peer support from other parents, survivors, or offenders can be especially helpful in dealing with these situations. Connecting with others who have grappled with similar decisions and dilemmas takes away a bit of the stress and fear, and a lot of the isolation and stigma.
Some parents striving to support multiple children in the aftermath of sibling sexual trauma have coped by imagining that they are holding down two or more jobs. They mentally punch in and out as they focus on each child.
Peer Support for Parents
Facebook: Parents Coping with Sibling Sexual Trauma and Abuse (private group, must request to join; some parents create a separate profile to join and that is OK)
Kkccares.org offers a weekly call-in support group for parents of sibling sexual abuse
The following are not specific to sibling sexual trauma:
Parents Whose Children Have Been Sexually Abused online support group on dailystrength.org
Moasissupport.org M*OASIS(Mothers of Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse)
Families of Sex Offenders private forum on ProBoards
Stop It Now!: When You Love Them Both
Yates & Allardyce, CSA Centre, 2020: Sibling Sexual Abuse: a Knowledge and Practice Overview, see p. 6
Sibling Sexual Abuse resources kkccares.org: What the First Year Felt Like for Me
Sibling Sexual Abuse resources kkccares.org: Letter to My Past Self
Dan Savage interview with Meghan Fagundes: What Should the Duggars Have Done