The recent Duggar tragedy has prompted questions from parents and communities about how one should respond to similar situations of sibling abuse. Boz Tchividjian provides some great suggestions in this interview with CBN, the most important of which is, “Don’t ignore it.”
As the parent or caretaker of a either a child who has been abused by a sibling or a child who has abused a sibling (or both), it is vital that you immediately take every step possible to protect the abused child and seek help for the abusive one. Here are 8 such steps:
First, protect the abused child.
Take whatever immediate steps you need to ensure that the abused child is protected from future emotional, physical, and sexual injury. If this requires relocating the abusing sibling temporarily until he or she can learn to behave differently, or whatever you need to do, make sure the abused child is safe.
Second, if the abuse is a criminal action, report it.
Learn how to report abuse here. This can be a difficult step as a parent. Having to report your own child for abusing another child is heartbreaking. But it is absolutely necessary for the safety of other children as well as the future wellbeing of the abusive child. Stop It Now! has helpful advice for parents needing to report their own children for abuse.
Third, get a professional counselor involved.
If you know or suspect that a child of yours is being abused by a sibling, make an intervention. Contact a professional who specializes in whatever form of abuse is occurring. Especially in the case of sexual abuse, children need immediate help both to recover from it (as a victim) and get help to stop (as a perpetrator). Sibling abuse is not “just a phase” or something people “grow out of.” Sibling abuse needs to be taken seriously and requires professional involvement.
Fourth, consider where the child may have learned the problematic behavior.
Especially in the case of sibling sexual abuse, it is important to ask if the child learned the sexually abusive behavior from someone else — an older child, relative, or parent. In many instances of sibling sexual abuse shared with Homeschoolers Anonymous, the perpetrators were themselves victims of abuse.
Fifth, make a safety plan.
It is important to ensure that other children and siblings are safe from an abusive child. Thus you need to make a safety plan for your family that is clearly communicated to everyone, including the abusive child. Stop It Now! has advice for such safety plans, which you can view here. An excerpt follows:
“While you’re setting up therapy, safety planning is an equally important priority. It is very important that your son’s opportunities to further sexually harm another be limited. He needs to take responsibility in planning with you and his father guidelines such as not being alone with any younger peers at any time. He should always be in eyesight of other adults when children are present, and should not be allowed to be in a room alone with a child with the door closed.”
Sixth, communicate with other parents.
As heartbreaking, stressful, and embarrassing as it is, if you know your child has abused other children or siblings, you need to contact any and every family that your child could possibly have also hurt. Let them know what is going on. Be transparent and open. Inform them of the exact steps you are taking to remedy the situation. Tell them about your safety plan. Encourage them to adopt the same safety plan around your child. Have them talk to their children and make sure they are safe.
Be proactive in protecting other children — by doing so, you are also helping the abusive child.
Seventh, do research.
You don’t have to go through the pain of sibling abuse alone. Go to the library or get online and research how you can help your family and other families recover from sibling abuse — as well as prevent further abuse.
Eighth, consider how you can make your family healthier.
Cases of physical violence between children often occur when children feel unable to express themselves. If your child has been acting out violently, talk to that child and figure out how to encourage the child to express anger and frustration in healthier ways. Don’t just lash out and model the same inappropriate behavior. Punishing children for abuse with other forms of abuse is counter-productive. The same goes for punishments involving humiliation. Acknowledge the incident (never ignore sibling abuse!), remain calm, and approach your children as rational human beings who can and must understand why abuse is not appropriate.
Other ideas for making your family healthier include:
- Intervene in sibling disputes way before they escalate into potentially abusive situations.
- Ease up on the responsibilities forced onto older siblings. Certain homeschooling subcultures actively promote giving older siblings an excessive amount of responsibility. However, this is counter-productive and damaging, as too much responsibility for, or power over, a younger child can create resentment and directly foster sibling abuse.
- Set time aside each day to talk to each of your children individually so that if they have problems with other siblings they can feel safe telling you.
- Teach your children about sexuality, good touch versus bad touch, and why it’s essential that they respect other children’s bodies and why consent is important.
- Most importantly, always trust a child who comes to you with a story about abuse. The chance of such a story being false is extremely low.
For more information and resources about sibling abuse, see HARO’s article, “Sibling Abuse: The Unspoken Threat.”