Sibling Sexual Abuse: A knowledge and practice overview – Stuart Allardyce and Peter Yates
We have known for many years that sibling sexual abuse is the most common form of sexual harm within families, with victimisation studies suggesting it may be three times as common as sexual abuse perpetrated by a parent. For parents, discovering that their child has sexually abused their own sibling can be an emotionally overwhelming experience, often bringing to the surface fault-lines that long existed within the family in relation to abuse, neglect and experiences of injustices and power differences. And for child care practitioners, cases involving sibling sexual abuse are often complex and demanding, with decisions needing to be made about whether siblings can continue to live together in the same household, and if separation takes place, decisions then needing to be made about whether the siblings can see each other and if family reunification is ever possible.
The Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) has recently published an accessible report for professionals, providing an overview of current research and practice knowledge on sibling sexual abuse in childhood. Sibling Sexual Abuse: A knowledge and practice overview is a report written by Stuart Allardyce (Lucy Faithfull Foundation) and Dr Peter Yates (Edinburgh Napier University) to help professionals think through the issues and challenges raised by this area of practice.
Key messages in the report include:
- Not all sexual interactions between children and siblings are abusive and in some cases sibling sexual interactions may be normal, exploratory and mutual. However, it is vital practitioners feel confident to assess and understand sibling sexual behaviours so that normal behaviour is not pathologized and so that harmful behaviour receives an adequate response.
- Behaviour that is inappropriate, problematic or abusive needs to be addressed proactively, with all family members being supported. Both the child who has been harmed and the child who has harmed are first and foremost children, and both will have needs that must be addressed. With the right intervention, the majority of children and young people who sexually harm others do not go on to abuse as adults. As professionals we play a key role in reducing risk, building strengths and preventing the risk of future harm.
- Sibling sexual abuse may involve a wide range of behaviours over a long period of time, including sexual touch, penetrative sexual acts and non-contact forms of sexual abuse such as voyeurism. It is less likely to be disclosed than other forms of sexual abuse. It has the potential to be every bit as harmful as sexual abuse by a parent, but, as with all child sexual abuse, may not affect all children equally. Its impact may not be apparent until adulthood. Professionals need to be careful not to make assumptions, but to assess the likely impact of sibling sexual abuse by considering its nature and duration, the context of sibling and family relations in which it has taken place, its meaning to the children involved, the responses of family members, and other protective and vulnerability factors.
- Children who have sexually abused a sibling may often have experienced abuse and trauma themselves, and must be given support accordingly. In addition to this, when identified, sibling sexual abuse is commonly experienced as a crisis within the family. The whole family is usually affected, including siblings not directly harmed in the abuse. The responses of all family members need to be understood as having an impact on each other; they cannot be understood in isolation.
- Sibling sexual abuse must be understood as a problem of and for the family as a whole, and not just a problem for or about an individual child. The family as a whole needs to be involved in any intervention plan and the strengths of the family – and potentially their community – must be harnessed in order to help the family move on from harm.
- Likewise, assessment should be thorough and consider the needs of the entire family. Assessments are best undertaken when emotional, physical and sexual safety are available to all of the children in the family. Practical decisions to promote the safety of the children are vital after sibling sexual abuse comes to light. This may require some detailed safety planning. In some circumstances, the child who has harmed will need to be placed away from the family home, at least until the assessment has been completed.
- Interventions with families who have experienced sibling sexual abuse are under-evaluated, and there are no evidence-based approaches to date. Although traditional interventions for children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour may be appropriate in such cases, the practice literature outlines approaches that are family-based rather than just individually focused. They involve helping the child who has harmed to take responsibility for managing their behaviour more effectively, helping the child who has been harmed to recognise that what has happened is not their fault, and supporting positive parenting and family functioning that promotes emotional, physical and sexual safety. When siblings have been separated, reunification is a goal that can focus therapeutic work undertaken by members of the family and the family as a whole, whether or not that goal is ultimately achieved.
- Work with families that have experienced sibling sexual abuse can be challenging and those most closely involved in supporting the family need reflective supervision and support.
The report concludes that helping families to heal and move on is the key therapeutic goal that professionals need to work towards after sibling sexual abuse has occurred. If this is not achieved, siblings who have been harmed may all too often cut themselves off from potentially supportive family members as they grow older, because the family continues to be experienced as an emotionally unsafe place. Siblings may attempt to avoid contact with each other in adulthood because of unresolved issues, but events such as weddings and funerals can throw them together and become emotional minefields that cause stress for all members of the family. Alternatively, separated family members may drift back together and perpetuate compromised, unhealthy and abusive relationships which may reverberate through the generations.
Families therefore need opportunities to make sense of the trauma of sibling sexual abuse if they are to be able to move on in a healthier way. Without sensitive and purposeful support, the impact of the abuse on sibling relationships and on other family relationships, whether maintained or estranged, can be lifelong. Over time and with the right kinds of support, however, an experience that may be one of the most catastrophic any family can live through may also become a window of opportunity through which positive growth and change become possible.
In collaboration with the CSA Centre we are currently developing a further practical resource to accompany this evidence review. To find out more about the work they do, read further resources and access the report, do visit: www.csacentre.org.uk.
Stuart Allardyce, Director at Lucy Faithful Foundation, with responsibilities for Stop It Now! Scotland
Dr Peter Yates, lecturer and Programme Lead in Social Work at Edinburgh Napier University