When a family discovers that one of their children has been sexually abused, the natural reaction is to focus intensely on that child’s needs and the practical steps required to keep the child safe and alert the authorities about the abuse. Sometimes, in these times of crisis, the emotional and psychological needs of the family’s other children can go unfilled. Even if the siblings were not abused themselves, they will face challenges as their family deals with the fallout from the crime.
If no one explains what is going on, siblings can be confused and anxious. They sense that something is seriously wrong, but no one has taken the time to sit down and explain the situation to them. With the parents’ focus on the child who was abused, siblings can feel neglected, which may lead to acting out and other disturbances in their behavior.
If the abuser was a close family member like a parent, siblings of the child who was abused will often have a hard time accepting that someone they love could abuse their brother or sister. This can lead to a range of negative feelings, including anger, guilt, fear and shame. They may worry about what will happen to the abuser.
In addition to emotional issues, the siblings of children who are sexually abused may face upheavals in their daily lives, such as leaving home so they are protected from the abuser. That move can mean that they will have to switch schools, which takes them away from the friends they rely on for support. Disclosure of sexual abuse can also cause other family members and friends to treat the family differently. Parents may not let their children socialize with children from the victim’s family for fear that their child could be at risk of being abused. If there is disbelief about the abuse among family members, children may lose touch with people who used to be part of the support network that made them feel safe and loved.
How to help siblings cope
It’s important to take the time to explain the situation to your children in age appropriate language and let them know you are available whenever they need you to talk about their feelings and fears or just to get reassurance.
There are also other key steps you can take to support your children:
- Try to keep up with their normal routine as much as possible.
- If you’re upset and overwhelmed, arrange for your children to spend time with a trusted adult like a grandparent or aunt. The respite will be good for you and your kids.
- Arrange for siblings of the child who was abused to take part in individual or family therapy to help them cope with their worries and feelings.
- Make some time to focus on each child individually. Read a book together, talk or share a hot chocolate. Knowing that their parents are there for them can help all your children know that they are loved and supported.