• Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

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Costs of Ignoring Child Maltreatment

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One of the deepest held secrets in families is that of sibling incest. It is not as uncommon as you might think. Research shows that 60% of outpatient psychiatric patients report having engaged in sibling incest when they were children.This is another area of child maltreatment that is often kept silent.

Sibling incest involves the following:

  • Typically an age difference of 5 years or more; 
  • Misrepresentation of facts, threats, and physical aggression; and
  • The victim/survivor feels fear or anxiety as a result.

Sibling incest is not:

  • Playing “doctor”;
  • Brief episodes of child exhibitionism (“You show me yours and I’ll show you mine”); or
  • Pre-school siblings bathing together or early pre-pubescent brothers comparing the size of their genitals.

The juvenile offender can be characterized as the following:

  • Does not consider the other’s feelings;
  • Typically pre-plans and watches for opportunities to abuse;
  • Engages in a repetitious pattern of behavior;
  • Maintains secrecy through bribery, threats, and coercion;
  • May be motivated by revenge; and
  • Uses another child as a sexual outlet.

In this last case, the offender is a sexually reactive youth who previously was sexually abused or was exposed inappropriately to adult sexual activity.

There are numerous family patterns in which sibling incest occurs:

  • Older brother who somehow perceives himself as socially rejected and powerless, abuses his younger sister. She is disbelieved or blamed by their parents who form an alliance with the son to maintain secrecy and prevent outside interference and possible residential placement.
  • Family in which the father is a repeat sex offender. The family is sexually charged or has an extremely repressive atmosphere, and the children engage in sibling abuse.
  • Duo-status family in which one or both parents sexually abuse the children and then the children sexually abuse one another.

Characteristics of family systems at high risk for sibling incest include the following:

  • A home environment that fails to protect;
  • Poor boundaries with little regard for physical and emotional space or individual needs for privacy;
  • Physical or emotional absence of one or both parents;
  • Frequent unresolved issues;
  • Poor conflict resolutions;
  • Poor communication avenues for the children;
  • Isolation from the community; and
  • Parent(s)’ chemical dependency and/or depression which impairs the adult(s)’ ability to protect and creates role reversal whereby the children seek to protect and nurture their parents.

Generally, the more characteristics present in a family the greater the risk of sibling incest.


1 “Crisis Intervention Handbook: Assessment, Treatment, and Research,” by Albert R. Roberts, published by Oxford   University Press, 2000

Child Abuse: The Effects and Impact

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Theories of Child Abuse

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