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.)