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When a child is sexually abused by another child or a sibling

Many children do not tell anyone about sexual abuse by another child until years after the abuse has stopped, especially when the sexual abuse is by a sibling. This is why it is so important that professionals understand the risk factors for sexually reactive behaviour so they can be aware of the signs that a child may be experiencing abuse.

Children who have been sexually abused by another child or their sibling can find speaking out about their abuse incredibly difficult for many reasons:

  • They may not realise they are experiencing abuse because they live in an overtly sexualised environment with greater exposure to pornography, highly sexualised language and sexualised behaviour from adults.
  • Children who are alienated from their parents are at greater risk of sibling sexual abuse, and may also be less able to disclose abuse to their parent. Similarly, children in foster and residential care arrangements may have had limited positive experiences of adult interactions, and can therefore struggle to disclose to adults.
  • Children who have had very few positive interactions with their parents may rely on their sibling or a child who displays sexually reactive behaviours (SRB) for comfort and may in some ways welcome the interaction or attention. This may cause confusion and prevent disclosure.
  • Children are likely to have been subjected to silencing strategies which prevent them from being able to disclose abuse. For example, a child abusing another child may silence them by threatening social isolation or saying they will be in trouble if adults find out. 

Note

Children who are sexually abused by a sibling can find it difficult to maintain their disclosure. This can be due to greater pressure to retract their disclosure to protect their sibling from a criminal justice response or other consequences as a result of people knowing about the abuse.

Understanding peer to peer sexual abuse

Children and young people may engage in mutual sexual behaviours with peers at any age. Depending on the behaviour, age and developmental stage of both children or young people, the behaviour may be considered sexually reactive behaviour or developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour. If children have sexually abusive behaviours towards their peers, they are more likely to abuse children they have a relationship with (such as peers at school or from a social group). They are also more likely to use aggression and force in their sexually reactive behaviours (Ryan & Lane, 1997).

Tip

Refer to the ‘Traffic lights’ resource to understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy sexual development in children and young people at various ages.

If children or young people engage with similar age peers in mutual sexual behaviours that are appropriate for the children or young people’s age and developmental stage, these behaviours still require discussion from the safe adults in their lives to support and educate them to understand the nature of the sexual activity, appropriate sexual behaviour and boundaries.

If it is determined that one child or young person in the dynamic used coercion, or if the dynamic is inequitable due to a significant age gap or developmental difference (i.e. if one child has an intellectual impairment), this provides a strong indicator that the behaviour was sexually abusive.

When seeking to understand mutual sexual behaviours and whether they are sexually abusive, look out for:

  • Inequality between the children. Age gaps of two years or greater between peers found engaging in sexual behaviour would indicate inequality in power dynamics.
  • Inability to provide or lack of informed consent. For example, a child with a significant intellectual impairment may not be able to provide informed consent even with a child of similar age.
  • Coercion or aggression. This includes threats (both implicit and explicit), physical aggression or threats of physical harm or other inducements (like rewards).

If there are worries a child has been involved in mutual sexual behaviour without equality or consent, or the sexual activity was coercive, refer to Risk assessment and decision making if a child has sexually reactive behaviours.

Understanding sibling sexual abuse

This section focuses on understanding the risk factors and impacts of sibling sexual abuse. Sibling sexual abuse requires different considerations to peer to peer abuse.

Attention

Sibling sexual abuse is the most common type of child sexual abuse to occur in families. Researchers estimate it occurs between three to four times more often than father-to-daughter sexual abuse. A study by the NSPCC (UK) interviewed 2,869 young adults and found that of those who were sexually abused, 43 per cent were victims of sibling sexual abuse (Stathopoulos, 2012).

Children say:

I had great difficulty in finding my place in the family and elsewhere, in daring to trust in others. I was an extremely anxious child and afraid of other people, both big and small. This feeling persists even today. I always feel insecure. My greatest problems are those connected with nearness and intimacy”

- Survivor of sibling sexual abuse (Veigh & Jo, 2003).

Sibling sexual abuse is common within the context of intra-familial abuse. Research has identified that abuse by siblings may be associated with greater frequency, younger children being accessed over longer periods of time and more likely to involve intrusive and penetrative acts than other acts of intra-familial abuse (Cyr, Wright, McDuff & Perron, 2002). Further, children who experience sibling sexual abuse are less likely to disclose the sexual abuse than children who experienced intra-familial sexual abuse by an adult (Ballantine, 2012; Carson, Maciol & Schneider, 2006).

Victims of sibling sexual abuse are more likely than the general population to experience:

  • depression, eating disorders, substance misuse, suicidal feelings, flashbacks and low self-esteem
  • future physical / sexual abuse, relationship and intimacy problems
  • relationships with partners who are violent to them
  • family breakdown (for which the victim may be blamed) due to divided loyalties and disbelief
  • being forced to connect with the person (their sibling) who sexually abused them
  • feeling pressured to retract their disclosure.

There are times when a child who was sexually abused may have been coerced into believing that the sexual abuse is ‘normal’ or ‘a game’ and may not appear to be distressed by the abuse. This belief can be reinforced by parents, community members and professionals. It is not uncommon for children to experience distress and trauma later in life as they develop an adult awareness of their experience of sibling sexual abuse (Ballantine, 2012).

Attention

Regardless of the level of support a child may receive, the evidence increasingly shows that the impact of sibling sexual abuse is just as serious as sexual abuse by others (Cye et al., 2002; Rudd & Herzberger, 1999).

Not all young people who engage in the sexual abuse of their siblings have experienced sexual abuse themselves. Their sexually abusive behaviour may be due to factors including other forms of victimisation such as bullying, emotional and physical abuse, attachment disruptions, or behavioural difficulties. However, it is possible that the child engaging in the abusive behaviour has experienced sexual abuse by others (Tidefors et al., 2010). The child or young person’s sexually abusive behaviour should be considered within the context of trauma to enable assessment and treatment (Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 1998).

For information on responding to sibling sexual abuse, refer to 'Responding to sibling sexual abuse' in Responding to sexually reactive behaviours.

Understanding girls with sexually reactive behaviours

Much of the research about sexually reactive behaviours focuses on sexually reactive behaviours by boys. This is because boys account for over 90 per cent of sexually reactive behaviours (SRB). Statistically for girls:

  • At the age of four or five, girls are just as likely as boys to engage in sexually reactive behaviour.
  • Broadly, girls are a significant minority and account for seven per cent of known sexual abuse of children.

Girls with SRB are an extremely vulnerable group of children. They are likely to have experienced serious, persistent and multiple types of childhood victimisation including:

  • higher rates of sexual abuse and higher rates of victimisation at a younger age
  • higher rates of multiple and concurrent types of abuse (physical and emotional abuse, neglect and domestic violence)
  • higher levels of family dysfunction.

These high levels of childhood victimisation mean that girls with SRB are more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns such as depression, suicidality and eating disorders. Girls with SRB are more likely than boys to have been at risk of significant harm at the time of their SRB. For many girls, these experiences of risk continue into their adult lives. They often have limited positive social support and are more likely to be victims of interpersonal abuse in the future.

Repeated sexual abuse by girls with sexually reactive behaviours

Girls are much less likely than boys to have repeated incidences of any type of violent behaviour, including sexual violence. There is no known empirically validated tool for assessing the risk that a girl will continue sexually abusing others. However, researchers have identified some risk factors and protective factors for girls that may be useful when assessing the risk that a girl will display sexually reactive behaviour again.

Risk factors for girls continuing to display SRB:

  • current experiences of harm or a current lack of safety
  • a history of sexual abuse
  • early onset of puberty
  • a history of the child harming herself
  • a history of being inconsistently parented
  • a poor attachment to parents
  • preoccupation with sex
  • a belief that sexual activity is a necessary component of what she does and who she is
  • difficulty forming relationships with peers
  • a lack of closeness with a female parent figure or role model.

While there is no scale that measures protective factors for girls with SRB, general research on girls’ criminal behaviour has shown that the following factors can prevent girls from engaging in future criminal activity (Weldon, 2011):

  • safety from all other types of abuse and neglect
  • healthy identity development as shown by close and supportive relationships, particularly with mothers but also with peers and other female role models
  • a sense of belonging
  • the ability to express and regulate emotions
  • normal rates of aggression
  • involvement in extracurricular activities.

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