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Where's the Line?
 
“Sibling sexual abuse is sexual contact between two siblings
that is experienced by the survivor as traumatic.” 
Cora Haskins, 2003

Wondering about yourself?
About your own experiences, memories, or behavior?

If you ever had sexual contact with a sibling that you did not want...

or did not like, or that left you feeling confused, distressed, used, uncomfortable, or any other negative feeling, then your sibling crossed a line. If it felt abusive, harmful, or just not right to you in any way, then it was wrong. ​It was not your fault. If it's bothering or affecting you, it is a big deal

If your sibling has said they were sexually harmed or abused by you... 

you crossed a line--even if you didn't realize it or didn't intend it to be harmful. No other information is needed to determine that your actions hurt your sibling. The fact that your sibling took the difficult step to tell you or others about it shows how deeply it has affected them.

 

You can't change what happened in the past, but you can avoid causing further harm by taking responsibility and making your sibling's welfare the focus of how you react. Your sibling needs you to back up their report that it happened and that you hurt them, to admit that it was wrong without explanations or excuses, and to commit to taking steps so you will not do it again. It is important to accept the language your sibling uses to describe your behavior, and focus on the truth that it did happen, even if you would personally choose different words to describe it or your memory differs. 

 

Sibling sexual trauma is serious; it stays with a child and deeply affects their whole life, especially when it remains hidden and is not acknowledged. It is important to allow your sibling to choose who to tell and how to tell others about their experience, and to respect their wishes regarding boundaries with them and how to handle things like family gatherings. 

None of this is easy; in fact it is likely to be one of the hardest things you have ever done. Seek support for yourself--it is there. Any of the Stop It Now Helplines (scroll to yellow section at bottom of this page) offer respectful, confidential listening and guidance. This website also offers pages with more help for those who have hurt their sibling. 

If you are an adult reflecting on your past, wondering if your own behavior crossed a line or if you might have hurt your sibling... 

the orange section below may offer some perspective. If it is possible to ask your sibling, their response carries more weight than any formal definition. You might even be unsure who hurt who or what was your role in what happened. Scroll to the yellow section at the bottom of the page to find a helpline for those concerned about their own sexual behavior, such as Stop It Now! These are confidential and will treat you with respect.

Wondering About Another Adult? 
(including adult children)

If your adult child, partner, friend, or family member tells you that they were abused, violated, molested, or otherwise harmed by a sibling's sexual behavior... that is all the information you need. Your role is to listen carefully, affirm that you heard them and believe them, reassure them it was not their fault, support them by continuing to listen and accept them, and allow them to choose their path going forward. Contact 5WAVES if you are interested in one of our online support communities for friends and family of those who have experienced or were responsible for sibling sexual trauma.

Wondering About a Teen's or Child's Behavior?

Sexual activity between a child and an adult crosses a clear generational boundary. It is never OK. Sexual behavior between siblings can be more confusing. Some sexual play or curiosity can be part of normal development. It's common for parents and caregivers to struggle with teaching children to respect personal boundaries without shaming their healthy sexuality. Below are some guidelines for determining when sexual behavior among siblings has crossed the line past what is developmentally appropriate.  

If you are a parent or caregiver of children who are minors: 

If a child tells you, or acts in a way that makes it clear, that they don't like or are upset about their sibling's behavior, that is all the information you need. If you feel in your gut that something is off, that something is not right, trust your instinct. You need to take some kind of action. Scroll down to "Next Steps" (white) for guidance.​

If all children appear to be doing well, the following questions can be used as a guide to whether their behavior might be developmentally appropriate:

  • Do the children both seem to be voluntarily participating in the behavior?

  • Are the children similar in age, physical ability, status within the family, mental and social development?

  • Do they both appear to be motivated by play, humor, or curiosity?

  • Are they both pre-puberty? 

  • Do they seem to be showing a knowledge of sexuality that is appropriate for their age?

  • Has it happened only once, or infrequently (as far as you know)?

  • Do the children respond to adult redirection, or reminders to respect each other's boundaries?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, it is likely that the behavior falls within the realm of age-appropriate curiosity or play. Still, it is a teachable moment, an opportunity to remind them or start talking to them about body safety, internet safety, boundaries, and consent. It is also a reminder for parents to review what kind of behavior is appropriate for their children's stage in sexual development, to revisit household rules and habits, to review possible signs that a child has been sexually abused.

If you answered "no" to any of the screening questions above, even if all children seem to be OK, you need to take some more steps. 

Next Steps for Parents or Caregivers
When Sibling Sexual Trauma is Known, Suspected, or Possible

If there is any immediate threat of violence, suicide, or further harm; if you do not feel you can keep your children safe right now, call your emergency number: 

911 (US/CA/Mexico), 999 (UK), 000 (AU), 112 (Europe)

Principles to keep in mind:

  • Adults usually don't see the whole picture right away. 

  • As you learn more, you may need to adjust your responses.

  • If in doubt, err on the side of caution. 

  • If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it probably is.

  • It is common for children's reports to differ. If a child is reporting being harmed by a sibling's behavior, that is the most important message to believe. Sometimes their account is fragmented or some details change over time;  traumatic memories often behave this way.  

  • Do your best to remain calm.  

 

Actions to take:

1. Separate the children and keep them safe. If they are together now, put them in separate rooms if possible. Or take them aside one at a time, out of sight and hearing of their sibling. 

2. Calm yourself and/or each child, as needed. If it takes some time, wait if possible. Options that can help steady yourself include separating yourself briefly from the children, closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths, calling a trusted friend or relative to join you, or calling a mental health or child safety helpline (listed below).

3. If possible, speak to each child separately. Remain as calm, matter-of-fact, and nonjudgmental as possible. Mention what you saw or what you know, ask if they want to tell you any more about it, ask if it has happened before, ask how they feel about it. Ask if there is anything else they would like to tell you. Ask if they want to continue to be with their sibling or not.

 

4. Reassure the child of your love and support, and let them know they can tell you more later if they think of anything else. If a child gives more information, reassure them that they were right and brave to tell you. If a child tells you they were harmed, reassure them it was not their fault. 

5. Take action based on what you have seen, felt, and learned. (See below.)

The orange sections below give general guidance on what kind of response may be appropriate for various behaviors and context. Every situation is different! The guidelines below do not address every factor that you may have to consider. If in doubt, seek a higher level of help or intervention more quickly. See listing of helplines below for confidential, specific guidance. 

Get Emergency Help Now

Possible reasons to take this action:

  • Present threat of violence, injury, or sexual assault

  • Anyone is at risk of suicide or self-harm

  • There is physical injury

  • A sexual assault just happened

  • You have evidence of an assault or penetration to give police

Options Include:

Keep Children Separated, with No Communication
(in different households if possible)
Get professional help as soon as offices open

Possible reasons to take this action:

  • Any child in great emotional or physical distress, or behavior out of control

  • Reports or evidence of force, intimidation, coercion, threats, sadism, cruelty, humiliation

  • Reports of past oral, anal, or vaginal penetration, using any body part or object

  • Possibility of physical harm (itching, tenderness, etc)

  • Report or evidence that an adult is aware of or encouraging children's or teen's sexual activity

Options Include:

Make Calls and Appointments for Professional Help
Keep children separate, or supervise very closely

Possible reasons to take this action:

  • Child asks for help or expresses distress

  • Any child exhibits signs consistent with being sexually abused (including but not limited a change in behavior, excessive anger, sensitivity to touch, severe anxiety, recurring headaches, stomachaches, urinary tract infections, sleep trouble, depression)

  • Sexual behavior seems compulsive or addictive, ongoing or habitual

  • Sibling with greater power (e.g., size, strength, ability, status in family, social or mental development) uses it to exploit, manipulate, bribe, coerce, or entice less powerful sibling

  • Behavior seems premeditated or planned 

  • One sibling grooms another for sexual activity

  • Type of behavior or knowledge is beyond what is age-appropriate

  • Involves explicit online viewing, interaction, recording, or sharing

  • High parental stress and trauma after disclosure

Options Include:

  • Contact Stop It Now! helplines (yellow box below) for advice on reporting, keeping children safe, and finding providers with experience in healing child sexual trauma and/or treating children with harmful sexual behavior

  • Contact your local child advocacy center or sexual assault crisis center (International Listing Here)

  • Search for providers with experience healing children who have been sexually abused or traumatized, and for those who treat children with sexual behavior problems

  • Call a child abuse reporting hotline

  • If any child is already getting professional help for depression, anxiety, addiction, physical symptoms, eating disorders, etc., mention what you know about the sibling sexual behavior to them

  • Any options in the boxes above

Check in with children
Increase supervision & communication in the home
Educate Yourself and Your Children on Body Safety, Consent, & Boundaries

Possible reasons to take this action:

 

*it’s important to note that these actions could harm or traumatize a child and many traumatized children do not show obvious signs of distress.

Options Include:

Still not sure? Need more help?

 

Contact these helplines if:

  • you are unsure how to proceed after discovering sexual behavior between children

  • you are concerned, upset, or confused about what you have done, what has been done to you, or someone else's experience or behavior

  • you need nonjudgmental and knowledgable support

  • you want to discuss your particular situation confidentially

  • you don't know how to find the help you need 

For Teens & Young Adults
(services by Stop It Now!)
those outside the US and UK also welcome

International Helpline List for Mental Health, Sexual Abuse, and Concerns About Sexual Behavior

GET HELP NOW

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