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Child sexual abuse (CSA) has been shown to have a significant impact on individuals. However, limited research has been conducted on the impact of the abuse on siblings, other family members and family relationships following the disclosure of CSA (McElvaney, 2015). As the disclosure of CSA often does not occur until adulthood, this can cause significant disruption to family dynamics (McElvaney, 2015). Following disclosure, siblings may experience intense emotional and behavioural responses, which can result in either increased support and contribution towards the victim's recovery or the breakdown of sibling relationships (Schreier et al., 2016). Although this has been acknowledged by mental health practitioners, who recognise the importance of supporting siblings as part of the recovery process for the victim (Han & Kim, 2016), it has been a neglected area in the literature (Crabtree et al., 2018; Katz & Hamama, 2018). This study sought to investigate adult sibling responses to disclosures of CSA, and the changes, if any, in sibling and family relationships following disclosure of CSA.
This article draws on findings from an ongoing study employing a population-based survey design to explore siblings’ experiences of family relationships following disclosure of CSA. Specifically, the article discusses the responses of participants to two open-ended questions about potential changes in the sibling relationship. The sample consists of 45 participants (36 women and nine men). Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data.
Three main themes were identified: intense sibling emotional reactions; strain and closeness in sibling relationships; and managing family dynamics. Participants described experiencing overwhelming emotions when hearing about the CSA. This ranged from complete shock and disbelief to intense sadness, feelings of anger or guilt about not having known sooner about the abuse or not having been a victim themselves, “I was hurt, disappointed and then very angry, in that order” (Participant 15).
Participants also described a change in the sibling relationship, with some participants reporting that they felt much closer to their sibling following disclosure, particularly where conversations were held about the abuse:
“We are closer, and there is no pretence as we can discuss the CSA and the impact on her and to me” (Participant 20).
Others, however, experienced a greater tension in the relationship:
“She has distanced herself from family, does not speak openly about it to us, does not attend family occasions/ it has made our relationship more strained as she does not feel supported and believed” (Participant 27).
Several siblings reflected on the importance of being there for their sibling, to listen to them and to believe them. Some participants highlighted experiences of having to negotiate and liaise between different family members, sometimes taking on a caretaker role with regards to their sibling. For some siblings, the disclosure led to major irrevocable divides occurring within the family:
“[It] resulted in the breakdown of the family unit of the abused child... it has changed the whole family dynamic, and I now feel this will never change” (Participant14).
Discussion and Conclusion
This study aimed to explore the experiences of siblings following the disclosure of CSA and to identify changes, if any, on sibling relationships and family dynamics. Research to date has highlighted not only the significant role that siblings play in the recovery process of the adult survivor but also the therapeutic and support needs of family members (Crabtree et al., 2018).
A unique finding of this study was the importance for sibling relationships of open communication about the CSA experiences. Participants noted that knowing what happened helped them feel close to their sibling following a CSA disclosure. In contrast, not knowing the details of what happened and feeling afraid to mention the abuse were features of more distant sibling relationships. Sibling relationships can serve as a protective factor for those who have experienced CSA (Katz & Tener, 2020). These findings build on previous, albeit limited research, and add to the evidence base for developing services to support siblings of children who experience CSA.
This research sheds light on a neglected area within the literature, providing important insight into the experiences of siblings following disclosure of a sibling’s CSA. However, there are also several limitations which must be acknowledged. As the survey was online, this may have limited the accessibility for individuals without access to the internet. Additionally, the open-ended questions did not allow siblings to go into further depth of their experiences or allow for any further exploration by the researcher. Finally, the research was cross-sectional, captured at one moment in time; therefore, it is unknown how the sibling relationship changed over time. Nonetheless, the study adds to the limited research base regarding this topic. It confirms the need for empirically-based approaches that incorporate a person-centred, lifespan perspective to therapeutic responses, with careful consideration of the family and community context of survivors of CSA (Alaggia et al., 2017).