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How Do I Know Who to Believe?
The scenario is heartbreakingly common: A child who has been sexually violated by a sibling finally overcomes their fears and tells someone. But when the other sibling is questioned or confronted, they deny that anything happened. This denial becomes another very real violation, a dismissal of the survivor’s reality, credibility, even their humanity.
Parents, reeling from the shock of the revelation and struggling to wrap their minds around the situation, are left in an impossible situation. They want to believe and support both children but are forced to choose which child to believe. Professionals have a more complicated job in front of them.
In this scenario, it is far more likely that the one reporting the harm is more truthful. This is true even if the survivor waited years to mention the problem, is fuzzy on details, or has a history of lying in relation to addiction or mental illness. False reports of sexual abuse are rare. (Jim Hopper, Ph.D. | Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse) Still, parents are facing a specific situation, with the lives and credibility of at least two of their own children on the line, not a cold statistical probability.
It’s also important to note that children and teens in particular can move from denial to taking responsibility, given patience, help, and opportunity.
Why do so many deny what they have actually done?
“I didn’t do it” is the brain’s go-to reaction to being confronted with an accusation. This is true at any age but especially in younger adolescents.
A person who knows they have done something shameful may separate their usual self from the self that caused the sexual harm. Or they may modify their memory to fit a less shameful narrative.
Sometimes very traumatic or shameful memories are irretrievable. This is particularly likely if a person who was sexually abused in the past acts out on a sibling. In this case, the person who says, “I have no memory of anything like that” is not being consciously deceptive, even if they are guilty of the action.
Overcome by their own shock and fear
Having your darkest secret revealed to your family is its own trauma. The intense fear and shame may quickly turn into anger or even a feeling of being betrayed or victimized. These feelings are real and powerful and may need to be dealt with before the individual can move on to facing reality and taking responsibility.
DARVO is a term coined by Jennifer Freyd, PhD to describe a common phenomenon among adults accused of wrongdoing, particularly sexual crimes. It stands for Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. It is particularly important for the survivor’s welfare that parents and institutions do not unwittingly reinforce DARVO, or similar behavior in juveniles.
Knowledge of possible consequences
This is the most obvious reason to deny wrongdoing, the first and maybe the only one that comes to mind for many people. It is rarely the only reason, but it is usually present to some extent. Even children who are too young to know exactly what they did wrong can at least sense that they are in trouble. Those who are adults know that revelation of their past may lead to loss of their job, their family, and their reputation.
If a person fears legal consequences, they may assume they need to deny the activity. They do have a right to refrain from talking to police and to others. However, there is no legal benefit (and possibly even legal risk) to stating “I didn’t do it” rather than “I don’t want to talk about it.” And the latter is more respectful of the one who has come forward with a report.
An initial denial or minimization of the behavior does not mean that the sibling will never take responsibility. With time, support, therapy, possibly the threat or reality of legal action, a person who has committed shameful acts in the past may gain the ability to remember them and take responsibility for them.
How can parents move forward in this situation?
Everyone’s situation is different. There are many factors to consider and parents have to do the best they can with what they know. The following are approaches that prioritize believing and supporting the child who was harmed, while keeping the door open for the sibling who has been accused to take responsibility.
“I hope you are right that you didn’t do this. But since I can’t know personally, I am taking the road of believing and supporting your sibling. I can’t risk abandoning or disbelieving them if they are right.”
“It can be hard for us all to remember things that we want to forget. Give it some time, you might remember something.”
“I hope you didn’t actually do this. But I want you to know that even if you did, even if you did worse than I have already heard, I will always love you, and I will always believe in the good parts of you that I know are there.”
“Whether you remember anything or not, your sibling has made a police report. It is fine if you don’t want to talk to police. But it would be very helpful to your sibling if you say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this now,’ instead of ‘I didn’t do it.’”
If there is hard evidence of sexual activity, such as photos, texts, or DNA, being confronted with it may bring an admission of responsibility.
From Sibling sexual abuse: A knowledge and practice overview p. 36-37
It is quite common for preteens or teens who have caused sexual harm to refuse to admit it happened or that it was a “big deal.” They may even feel like they are a victim, misunderstood and falsely accused. This does not mean they will never take responsibility--but it also does not mean they should be coddled or let off the hook in the interest of “believing” them. Even if they begin by refusing or being resistant to therapy, over time therapy can bring them to the point of understanding and taking responsibility for the harm they have done. They may need to express their own feelings of fear, anger, betrayal, etc before they are able to turn to the results of their past actions. They may need time to feel safe enough in therapy to even remember what they have done.
What if you have been accused of something that you are sure did not happen, but your sibling is certain it did happen and you don't want to hurt them?
This is a difficult dilemma with no easy answer. Here is the way one gracious sibling handled it:
"I honestly don't remember this, but I want to believe you and support you. I am willing to take whatever steps you think would be helpful. I am willing to go to therapy either by myself or with you."