Sibling Sexual Abuse Facts Parents Should Know

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Sibling sexual abuse is often a hidden problem that is less discussed than other types 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.

What Is Sibling Sexual Abuse?

While there is no single accepted definition of sibling sexual abuse, it is often characterized as sexual abuse that occurs between children who grow up in the same family. This can include biological siblings, adopted children, foster children, stepchildren, or other children living in the home.

This article discusses some facts about sibling sexual abuse and signs of this type abuse to watch for. It also covers the causes, impact, and steps adults can take to prevent this type of abuse.

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

Given its hidden nature, it is very difficult to determine the prevalence of sibling sexual abuse. One report suggested that around 5% of children are involved in sibling sexual abuse. Estimates suggest that sexual abuse perpetrated by siblings may be up to three times as common as sexual abuse by a parent.

Research also suggests that sexualized behavior by perpetrators is likely to become more intrusive over time. Consequently, 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 many people hear the term “sex offender,” they 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 in their 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 and victims can be of any gender.

Recap

The exact prevalence of sibling sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is underreported. Research suggests offenders are most likely to be teen boys, but girls and younger children can also be perpetrators of abuse as well.

Signs of Sibling Sexual Abuse

While sexual abuse involving siblings is more common than people believe, it is frequently overlooked or ignored. Some behaviors that can be cause for concern include:

  • Behaving in sexual ways with toys or other children
  • Sudden changes in behavior including becoming withdrawn or clingy
  • Physical signs such as pain, sores, or redness of the genitals
  • Regressions in behavior, including bedwetting (in a child who previously did not wet the bed)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Avoiding or exhibiting fear of their sibling
  • Mood changes such as irritability, sadness, or outbursts of anger

Causes and Risk Factors

There is not a single cause associated with sibling sexual abuse. Because kids don't often report sibling abuse and parents may dismiss, deny, or overlook it, it is difficult for psychologists and other experts to fully understand why it happens and what factors contribute to this type of abuse.

Some factors that may play a role in increasing the risk of sibling sexual abuse include:

  • Age differences: Abuse may be more common when there is a significant age gap. In an article published in The Washington Post, John V. Caffaro, a psychology professor and author of "Sibling Abuse Trauma," noted that his own research suggests that there is often a large age difference between perpetrators and children who are abused. 
  • Previous sexual abuse: Children who have been abused themselves are more likely to engage in intrusive sexual behaviors and may be more likely to perpetrate sibling sexual abuse or to be abused by a sibling.
  • Neglect: Kids who are neglected by caregivers may be more likely to engage in sexual activities. Lack of adult supervision and care can contribute to kids seeking contact with others to address unmet emotional needs. Unsupervised kids may also be more likely to come into contact with pornographic materials.
  • Abuse of responsibility: Kids who are placed in a position of responsibility for younger children may lack the ability to manage their behaviors and may abuse this imbalanced power dynamic.

Recap

There is no single cause of sibling sexual abuse. A range of factors including dysfunctional family dynamics, lack of supervision, and past sexual abuse can all play a role.

Prevention

Giving your children the care and attention they need can help prevent sibling sexual abuse. Some steps you can take to reduce the risk include:

  • Make sure your children are properly supervised: Always make sure that your kids are supervised by a responsible person, whether they are at school, at home, or in another setting.
  • Talk to your child: Make sure that you set aside time each day to discuss the events of the day and any questions or concerns your child may have.
  • Teach children about sexuality: Children who lack age-appropriate sex education may be more likely to be abused or perpetrate abuse. Teaching your kids about their bodies and about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate way is an essential abuse prevention strategy.
  • Be supportive: If your child says that someone has abused them or behaved inappropriately, it is absolutely imperative that you believe them and take steps to address the abuse and get help for your child.

Research suggests that sibling sexual abuse is more likely to begin at a younger age and involve a variety of sexually abusive behaviors. More recently, this may include online elements such as sharing suggestive images, sharing pornography, or filming and sharing abusive acts. Being aware of what your child is doing online can also be an important tool for prevention.

Impact of Sexual Trauma

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 post-traumatic stress disorder (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.

Implications for the Abuser

One reason that sibling sexual abuse is underreported is the fact that doing so has the potential to severely disrupt the family dynamic. Reporting sexual abuse may lead to the temporary removal of the child perpetrating the abuse from the home. It may result in contact with police and the criminal justice system. 

Depending on the severity of the offense and the age of the offender, it may lead to consequences such as probation or a period of confinement in a detention center. 

While this can be difficult, it is important for parents and caregivers to take the appropriate steps to make sure that all of the children involved get the treatment and support that they need.

Recap

While reporting sexual abuse can be upsetting and frightening, it is important to believe victims and make sure that perpetrators face consequences for their actions. Abuse should be reported to family services so the appropriate actions can be taken.

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.

If you suspect that sibling sexual abuse has occurred, or if your child has told you it has happened, take these steps to ensure that your children get the help they need.

  • Report the abuse to family services. Depending on the age of the perpetrator, the police and court system may also become involved. The offender might be sentenced to detention, ordered to participate in a court-monitored treatment program, and receive continued monitoring after release.
  • Discuss the issue with each child. Depending on the situation, this might involve discussing the behavior, agreeing to respect boundaries, and reporting problems in the future. This should be followed with continued supervision and monitoring of behavior. Ensure that kids are not left unsupervised.
  • Make sure the perpetrator does not have access to their sibling. In other situations, it will be necessary to make sure the offending child no longer has access to their sibling.

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. Other children in the home or family who were not involved may also need treatment.

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.

Recap

If sibling sexual abuse is discovered, it is imperative for parents to take action to make sure that all children involved get the help they need. Accountability is necessary, so it is important to report the crime and follow through with appropriate counseling and treatment for both the offender and the victim.

A Word From Verywell

While sexual curiosity in children is normal and all kids engage in the exploration of their anatomy, there is a difference between normal exploration and sexual contact that is abusive, coercive, and exploitive. Talking to your children about what is appropriate, helping them understand and enforce boundaries, and keeping an open line of communication so your child feels comfortable talking to you are important steps for preventing sexual abuse.

And if children tell you about concerning behaviors or report being abused by a sibling, believe them. Then take the appropriate steps to stop the abuse, report what has happened, and get counseling for everyone involved. Children can heal with appropriate treatment, support, love, and understanding.

It is normal to feel fear and confusion if you suspect sibling sexual abuse. No one wants to believe their child would commit an act of sexual violence on another child, let alone their sibling. It can also lead to feelings of guilt that this violation occurred under your care or supervision without you realizing it. It is important to push through these uncomfortable feelings, take the necessary steps to ensure abusive sexual behavior does not happen again, and seek support for the entire family.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yates P, Allardyce S. Sibling sexual abuse: a knowledge and practice overview. Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse.

  2. O’Keefe SL, Beard KW, Swindell S, Stroebel SS, Griffee K, Young DH. Sister-brother incest: data from anonymous computer assisted self interviews. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. 2014;21(1):1-38. doi:10.1080/10720162.2013.877410

  3. Smith TJ, Lindsey RA, Bohora S, Silovsky JF. Predictors of intrusive sexual behaviors in preschool-aged children. J Sex Res. 2019;56(2):229-238. doi:10.1080/00224499.2018.1447639

  4. 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

  5. Finkelhor D, Ormrod R, Chaffin M. Juveniles who commit sex offenses against minors. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

  6. Caffaro JV. Sibling sexual assault is epidemic. No wonder Lena Dunham caused an uproar. The Washington Post.

  7. Government of Canada. Sibling sexual abuse: A guide for parents.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.