Sibling Sexual Abuse Facts Parents Should Know

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Sibling sexual abuse is one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the area of family violence. No one wants to believe that brothers and sisters are capable of abusing one another. They want to explain away the abuse as normal childhood curiosity. But it's not. It is a violent form of control that leaves victims feeling frightened and alone.

Facts About Sibling Abuse

Unfortunately, sexual abuse among siblings is much more common than most people know. It's also not limited to certain types of families—it occurs in many different kinds of households.

Kids are more likely to be sexually abused by their siblings than they are by their parents.

Sexual abuse among siblings can go on for a long time before parents are made aware of the issue. And sadly, many parents don’t take appropriate action when they do find out about it. Here are seven facts about sexual abuse among siblings that all parents should know.

Sibling Abuse Is Underreported

Sibling sexual abuse is hidden and greatly underreported to authorities. Abused siblings often don't disclose being abused because they are afraid of the perpetrator, of not being believed, and they are afraid of upsetting their parents. They also may be confused and worried that they are to blame.

Yet, the rate at which children are being abused by their siblings is significantly higher than the rate at which children are being abused by adult family members.

A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that at least 2.3% of children have been victimized by a sibling while only about 0.12% are abused by an adult family member.

Research also suggests that sexualized behavior by perpetrators is likely to become more intrusive over time. Consequently, sibling offenders tend to commit more sex crimes over time if they don’t receive treatment.

Parents May Doubt Victims

Unfortunately, many children who reveal that they are being sexually abused by a sibling aren’t believed by the parents. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that parents were much more likely to blame their child for the abuse or doubt the story altogether when the perpetrator was a minor. It can be especially hard for parents to believe that the perpetrator is their own child.

Male Juveniles Are Frequent Offenders

When people hear the term “sex offender,” they may picture an adult. But more than one-third of sex offenses against children are committed by other minors, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Easy access to siblings makes it more likely that an underage offender will choose someone within the household.

The average age of a juvenile sex offender is 15 years old. Most registered sex offenders carry out their first offense before age of 18. But as many as 1 in 8 juvenile offenders are under the age of 12.

Of all the juvenile sex offenses, only about 7% are committed by females. When females do commit sex offenses, they are much more likely to victimize family members. It’s important to remember that perpetrators sometimes choose same-sex siblings as well.

Potential Consequences

Just like other forms of childhood trauma, sexual abuse by a sibling can have long-lasting effects on a victim. Survivors of sexual abuse may feel like they were to blame. They also may convince themselves they were a co-conspirator, rather than a victim. There’s also a deep sense of shame that occurs when the perpetrator was a family member.

Sometimes survivors experience sexual dysfunction, mental health problems, or PTSD as a result of the abuse. Unfortunately, due to the nature of sibling abuse, the sense of powerlessness can be more pervasive compared to sexual abuse perpetrated by others. Adult survivors sometimes experience ongoing relationship problems as a result.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Parents Can Do

Parents need to be aware of sibling abuse. Educate yourself about the risk factors of sibling sexual abuse and take appropriate steps to prevent inappropriate sexual contact. Specialized services are necessary to ensure safety and to prevent further incidents of unwanted sexual contact.

If you suspect sexual abuse is going on in your home, it’s important to seek professional treatment for both the perpetrator and the victim.

Although it is difficult for parents to wrap their heads around the fact that one of their children could be abusing the other, this situation is not something that should ever be ignored. Sexual abuse is a crime. Both the victim and the perpetrator need your attention.

Perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions, and they also need treatment to ensure that they do not harm any other children. Meanwhile, victims need to be believed, supported, and protected. Reporting the abuse is the first step in doing that, but they will need ongoing treatment and love to heal from the effects of being abused by someone who was supposed to love them.

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  1. Nygren P, Nelson HD, Klein J. Screening Children for Family Violence: A Review of the Evidence for the US Preventive Services Task Force. The Annals of Family Medicine. 2004;2(2):161-169. doi:10.1370/afm.113

  2. Walsh WA, Cross TP, Jones LM. Do Parents Blame or Doubt their Child More When Sexually Abused by Adolescents Versus Adults? J Interpers Violence. 2012;27(3):453-470. doi:10.1177/0886260511421671

  3. Finkelhor D, Ormrod R, Chaffin M. Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors. U.S. Department of Justice. 2009.