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Help Siblings Cope with Sexual Abuse Secondary Trauma

How to Support Siblings with Sexual Abuse Secondary Trauma

Siblings of children who have gone through sexual abuse can have secondary trauma or feel like a “secondary victim.”

Each child grieves and handles trauma in their own way. A secondary victim is someone who has the feelings and impacts of trauma without going through the trauma itself. It is common for siblings who are secondary or indirect victims of sexual abuse to have emotional reactions. These can include:

  • Anger toward family members
    • At the sibling for telling
    • At the parent for not being able to protect the sibling
    • At the parent for reporting or for making the abuser leave the home
  • Anxiety about what will happen next
  • Helplessness to control events or fear about the future
  • Guilt for not telling, not knowing, or not caring
  • Feeling of shame for the sibling, family, or abuser
  • Confusion at what happens next

It is hard but important to tell siblings about the sexual abuse with age-appropriate language. A child’s response to learning about this may be:

  • Denial
  • Desire to protect the abuser rather than the sibling
  • Downplaying the abuse or unwilling to believe it
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Relief

If there is an emotional attachment to a close relative who has been identified as the sibling’s abuser such as a parent, brother / sister, grandparent, or others, the sibling may be confused about whether to support their sibling or abuser.

Your Response Can Help

One of the best ways you can support your child is to know the changes in the family’s structure. When talking with children about trauma or the abuse that has occurred, the information you share should be age appropriate. It should happen in a time frame that is close to the time your child talks about the abuse. Sharing information about the abuse this way allows the sibling to have the information based on facts, and not guesses or imagination. This may help reduce fear and anxiety about family changes. When you begin to recognize secondary trauma, their experiences can be supported. The healing process can begin. Continue to allow them time and space to process their feelings in a safe and supported way.

Remember, Healing Takes Time

Last Updated 02/2023

Reviewed By Sarah Zawaly, Clinical Program Manager

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The Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s is a premier program that has helped set the national standard for enhancing and strengthening evaluations of child abuse and trauma.