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Sibling abuse is ‘most common form of intra-familial abuse’

Sibling abuse is the most common type of intrafamilial abuse, a report has stated.

Sexual abuse involving child siblings is thought to be the most common form of intra-familial child sexual abuse, perhaps up to three times as common as sexual abuse of a child by a parent, the report by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse has said.

“All professionals working in health and social care need to be prepared to work with people affected by sibling sexual abuse, including both children and adult survivors. This involves understanding the nature and consequences of the abuse, in order to provide adequate responses to disclosure and identification,” said the report. “It also involves, where appropriate, being able to assess and manage effectively different kinds of situations involving sibling sexual abuse, and provide support for all family members affected in order to help them move on from harm and distress.”

In cases of sibling sexual abuse, the individual who has harmed and the individual who has been harmed are both children, which presents particular challenges which can lead to confused and confusing responses by professionals.

The report states that sibling relationships are likely to entail complex power dynamics that are informed by a range of gender and cultural differences. Older children typically have a wider range of tactics to draw upon and are more likely to be given authority over younger siblings. In the context of abuse, the nature of sibling relationships and the environment in which they develop makes it possible for behaviours to be frequent and unrestrained and may make it difficult for younger siblings to tell anyone about the abuse or have confidence that they will be believed.

Sibling sexual abuse has the potential to be every bit as harmful as sexual abuse by a parent and can have both short- and long-term consequences for children’s physical and mental health, and lead to relationship difficulties throughout their lifetime. However, some sibling sexual interactions may be exploratory and mutual rather than abusive and therefore assessing the nature and quality of the sibling relationship is important when assessing the nature of the sibling sexual behaviour.

Professionals therefore need to be precise about the language they use to describe the behaviours, which can be broadly divided into three types:

1) Normative sexual interactions between siblings – behaviour between young siblings that exists within expected developmental norms

2) Inappropriate or problematic sexual behaviour involving siblings – behaviour between siblings that falls outside developmental norms and which may cause developmental harm to the children involved

3) Sibling sexual abuse – behaviour that causes sexual, physical and emotional harm, including sexually abusive behaviour which involves violence.
Imprecise language should be avoided, and it is imperative that professionals record the details of the behaviour, rather than relying on labels alone in case notes.

Sibling sexual behaviour that falls outside developmental norms is likely to be harmful to the children involved and it is essential not to dismiss sibling sexual abuse as harmless exploration, the paper warns. However, at the same time, it is important not to pathologise developmentally normal sexual behaviours between sibling children as exploitative and harmful.

The most common reported pattern of sibling sexual abuse involves an older brother abusing a younger sister, and most of what we know from research relates to this pairing. 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, and 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,” said the report.

Children who have sexually abused a sibling may often have experienced abuse and trauma themselves, and must be given support accordingly. The paper stresses that these children are not ‘mini-adult sex offenders’.

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 whole family should 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.

When identified, sibling sexual abuse is commonly experienced as a crisis within the family and the whole family is usually affected, including siblings not directly harmed in the abuse.

Parents and carers can feel that they are in an impossible situation, torn between the needs of the child who has harmed and the child who has been harmed and may experience feelings of shame and denial, as well as feeling overwhelmed. Parents/carers need support and emotional containment in order to be able to offer appropriate support to all the children within the family.

Assessments should be thorough and consider the needs of the entire family. A structured risk assessment tool can be helpful, but needs to be contextualised within a broader formulation that considers the dynamics of the abuse, why a particular child was the subject of the abuse, the family dynamics, the cultural context, and the nature of the relationship between the child who has harmed and the child who has been harmed. Decisions about sibling living and contact arrangements need to be kept under review.

However, interventions with families who have experienced sibling sexual abuse are under-evaluated, and there are no evidence-based approaches to date. The process of reunification needs to be carefully staged and taken at a pace informed by the needs of the child who has been harmed, and must be informed by a thorough assessment process.

“Effective intervention requires a coordinated, multi-agency approach, involving families as partners in the decision-making. This requires careful contracting around confidentiality and good communication between the professionals involved. Those most closely involved in supporting the family need reflective supervision and support,” the report concludes.

Sibling sexual abuse

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