Siblings: Secondary Victims

Siblings are usually neglected following the disclosure of child sexual abuse in a family. The initial focus is on the victim, accountability for the offender, and negotiating the law enforcement, social services, and court systems. Counseling is focused towards the victim and possibly the mother of the victim.

Siblings are secondary victims. If the perpetrator is the father or another family member, the sibling may have been abused or may have known about the abuse. When a family experiences a crisis such as this, all family members know that something traumatic has occurred. If the family is not openly communicating about the event, siblings may experience increased fear and anxiety. They may not understand who is responsible for the current status of the family and may blame the victim or the mother. It is important that siblings are informed in a sensitive and age-appropriate way about the abuse of the victim.

Several questions are pertinent to siblings and require response:
  • Were siblings aware of the sexual abuse?
  • Were siblings sexually abused by the perpetrator?
  • Did siblings witness the sexual abuse?
  • If siblings knew about the abuse, who told them? Victim? Perpetrator? Other?
  • If siblings knew about the abuse, what kept them from telling someone? Were they threatened by the perpetrator? Was a secret held between victim and sibling?

It is important to inform siblings of the sexual abuse if they do not know. Mothers will need to determine how to tell other children in the family. Without this information, siblings will suffer unnecessarily because they will not understand disruption and chaos in the family.
A child's response to the disclosure of a sibling's sexual abuse may be:

  • Denial - If the sibling loves the perpetrator, he may be unable to believe the report of the abuse.
  • Alignment with the perpetrator - The sibling may want to protect the perpetrator and be concerned for him, rather than the victim.
  • Minimization of the abuse - Without specific details of the abuse and the victim's disclosure of negative effects of the abuse, the sibling is unable to grasp the gravity of the victimization. The abuse itself is hard for a child to imagine and will reduce the response and empathy towards the victim. 
  • Anger, anxiety and hurt - If the sibling has also been abused, these and other emotions will distress her. She may act out in anger or in disruptive behaviors.
  • Unwillingness to believe it - Siblings may be unwilling to believe that sexual abuse occurred because they may have known at some level of consciousness and did not know what to do. They may feel responsible and helpless.
  • Guilt - Siblings may have been previously abused by the perpetrator and were glad that the perpetrator had chosen someone else.   
  • Relief - They have known about the abuse and be glad that it is now out in the open.

Siblings may experience many other emotions following disclosure. These may include: 

  • Anger at the victim for telling. Anger at the mother for preventing the abuse. Anger at the mother for reporting. Anger at the mother for making the perpetrator leave the house (incest).
  • Confusion at what is happening.
  • Guilt for not telling. Guilt for not knowing. Guilt for not caring.
  • Anxiety about what will happen next.
  • Helpless to control any of the events. Helpless and afraid about the future.
  • Ashamed of the perpetrator. Ashamed of the victim. Ashamed of the family. Ashamed of the mother for not stopping the abuse.
  • Responsible for the sibling. Responsible for the sexual abuse.
  • Relieved and thankful they were not victimized. Relieved and thankful that the secret is out.
  • Ambivalent  about the family, the abuse, the perpetrator, and the mother. Love and hate, relief and anger, may swing like pendulums.

It is important for mothers and other supportive community and family members to pay attention to the needs of siblings. Perhaps family friends can include them in outings or otherwise provide special activities for these children so that they are not lost in the chaos of the family's disruption. Mothers must be particularly mindful not to focus so intently on the needs of the victim that they lose sight of other children in the family. 

See other pages on this site that address sibling issues:
Immediate Effects on Siblings
Parenting Victims
Needs of Siblings



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