Sex-Play vs. Sexual Abuse Among Siblings

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This article addresses what is considered sexual abuse among siblings versus just simple sex-play. This is a common problem in our society which is highly taboo and therefore rarely talked about.

Dear Doctor Life Advice,

We caught our 13 yr old son in our basement with our 6 yr old daughter on his lap. Both of them were only in their underwear. They were hiding under the covers and he was bouncing his sister on his lap. We are trying to figure out what our next step should be. Is this considered a sexual abuse incident? If so, how can we help our son without him being labeled for the rest of his life? And how can I protect my daughter as well?

 

Dear Concerned Parent,

You have every right to be concerned. Sex play among children is normal. However, the children are usually under the age of seven or eight, with the age difference between them being less than three years. Your son is too old to be playing in a naive way with his sister. At the same time, I do not want to frighten you. Your son is too young to be labeled as a child-molester for the rest of his life. He just needs help, and so does your daughter.  Let’s hope that this was an isolated incident, and that you caught it early enough to do something about it.

 

What to do about your daughter:

The most important thing for you to do immediately is to make sure you do not, under any circumstances, leave your daughter alone with your son. Furthermore, it would be best if you gather a bit more information from your kids. Talk to your daughter first. You need to stay collected and talk to her very openly, without showing any anger or fear. Ask her the following questions:

  • What were you two doing in the basement?
  • Did you want to play, or did he make you?
  • Why were you not wearing clothes?
  • Have the two of you played like this before?

Make sure this conversation is not with both parents present at once, because the child may feel overwhelmed. If you are uncomfortable having this conversation with your daughter, a child therapist can help you.

Does your daughter know about “private parts” and how off-limit they are? If she does not, then it is time for her to learn how to protect herself. Depending on what her answers are to the above, you may want to keep the discussion about private parts for later.  After talking to your daughter, you will get a good idea of what the situation is. Regardless of her answers, I recommend you find a child therapist in your area, and consult with him or her as soon as possible. The therapist will probably want to talk to your daughter and make an assessment of how far this has gone.

What to do about your son:

Your son is at an age where he is discovering his own sexuality. I don’t know what culture you live in, and what his exposure to girls his age is. If your daughter is the only girl he has access to, he may be experimenting on her just because of her availability. Also, I am not sure how much sexual education your son as had. Adolescents who have not been exposed to adequate sexual education will go looking for ways to educate themselves. Think about your son’s education and how uninformed or naive he is. Does he know about sex? Does he know it’s not OK for him to be playing naked with his little sister? He should know by now that such an act is unacceptable.

Sometimes, when older children act out sexually on their younger siblings, it can be a sign that the older children were molested themselves. You need to have a frank, calm, and non-judgmental talk with your son. Bear in mind that your six year-old daughter is much more likely to tell you the truth than your 13 year-old son. Ask him the following:

  • What were you doing in the basement with your sister?
  • Where did you get the idea to play this way?
  • How come neither of you were wearing clothes?
  • Has anyone ever done similar things with you?

Again, make sure that only one parent has this conversation with your son so he does not feel cornered. You could also have this conversation in the presence of a therapist. Please be prepared that your son will be much more resistant to seeking help than your daughter. Remember that you are still the parent, and have to ability to tell him that he MUST go.

I agree with you that the last thing your son needs at this age is to get labeled. He needs to see a child and adolescent therapist as well. Do not go to the same therapist for both kids. Each child needs to establish a trusting relationship with his or her therapist without worrying about what the other sibling will say.

 

I recommend you look for therapists outside of the kids’ schools so they won’t feel “shamed” at school. If you don’t even know where to start looking for therapists, then I recommend asking your children’s pediatrician. You don’t have to explain the situation; a simple call asking for therapist referrals for a 13 year-old boy and a 6 year-old girl is usually good enough to get you some names. You could also ask the schools;  however, I have never had success in asking schools for child therapists. In general, a child and adolescent therapist may be hard to find, so you can call some adult therapists in your area and see if they also work with children, or if they know someone who does. Make sure you interview the therapists first. Find someone who is understanding, loving, and caring so your kids can trust them. Stay with your kids during the first couple of sessions to make sure your kids are comfortable with their therapists before you leave them alone in sessions.

I am going to hope that this was an isolated incident caused mainly by your son being extremely naive. However, you should not assume this to be the case, and should start seeking help immediately   Many siblings have been involved in these situations;  the outcome of how well the kids will do is dependent on how the parents will react. The fact that you wrote to me shows that you are not going to just sweep this under the rug, and you are going to address it. The sooner you get help, the better the outcome will be.

Doctor Life Advice



One Comment

  1. mimukitkat
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    To: The Mom, Im sorry, I personaly as a mother of four children, my heart goes out to you, what your going through I don’t wish it upon my worst enemy. May God give you strength to press through, im a mother of three boys ages 14, 5, 2 and one girl age 9. I could honestly tell you that just the thought frightens me, my prayers go out to you and your family. To: Doctor Life Advice, Incredibly Detailed Answer, I’m Amazed. Thank You.

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About Doctor Life Advice

Doctor Beheshti

I am a compassionate and well trained psychiatric doctor, and I spend my days talking to others and helping them with their daily issues and problems. I have come to understand that all of us, regardless of our backgrounds and our life stories - every one of which is unique - share similar wants and needs.

I love my job which allows me to hear unique stories and help each of my clients individually. Although I cannot take the place of your doctor, I would love to hear your story too and perhaps provide some advice that will be useful to you, as well as others that will benefit from your story.

I have a sense of humor which comes through in my writings. Please know that I NEVER intend to make light of anyone's painful or sensitive situation. I only use humor because I think sometimes a smile and a little chuckle can go a long way in helping us feel better.

Doctor Life Advice is written and maintained by Sayeh Beheshti, M.D., M.A., a private practice psychiatrist in Newport Beach, CA.


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