Together, individuals and organizations, parents and professionals, can prevent incest abuse and improve vicim identification. Both will protect the next generation of children from sexual violence, as well as take the pressure off of children to disclose without support.
Sexual Safety at Home
In sexual violence prevention, we often talk about the behavior we DON’T want to see. But what about behaviors that we DO want to encourage and teach - those that will help keep people safe from incest and child sexual abuse? Many incest survivors tell stories of growing up in families in which boundaries were crossed, secrets were kept, children were blamed for adults’ behavior, and kids were shamed or even penalized for speaking up about abuse.
Can we prevent incest? Yes. A major part of incest prevention is educating ourselves so we can create home environments in which incest can’t flourish. How do we start?
Learn about sexual development and behaviors. As a first step, adults can learn about sexual development and normal, healthy behaviors, and talk with younger family members about sexual development in a positive, age-appropriate way. Discussions of boundaries and safe touch are essential, so that children know the difference between healthy and unhealthy touch. Children are sexual beings, just like adults, and are very curious about sex. Yet there are differences between normal sexual behaviors in children and those that may signal problematic sexual activity. Adults should learn these differences and have a plan for addressing a developing problem. This colorful poster can be hung as a reminder to children and adults about body safety rules.
Create an environment of communication, trust, and openness. One of the challenges in incest prevention is that the people best suited for creating a sexually safe home, such as parents, grandparents, and older siblings, may also be the ones perpetrating or covering up incest. Understanding this, it’s vital for all adults, regardless of their role in the family, to create an environment of safety, trust, and openness for others. Even older adolescents and adults without children can be a lifeline for a younger family member experiencing abuse or being groomed. Open lines of communication with children will raise their comfort level for asking questions or finding help if a family member has crossed a boundary or hurt them in some way. You can read and share with others this simple parent guide to the prevention of sexual abuse
Take steps to lay the groundwork for a safe home. Family members striving to create a household or extended family with good boundaries and knowledge of the warning signs of abuse can build a foundation for incest abuse prevention and early intervention. Some recommended Do’s are:
Establish a trusting relationship with your child so they will feel safe talking to you about anything.
Do all you can to increase your child’s self-esteem.
Teach proper names for body parts to convey that there is nothing wrong with them and to help children accurately report abuse.
Tell youth that their bodies are theirs and they have a right to say “no” to unwanted touch.
Be inquisitive when children talk about potential abuse warning signs and follow your gut.
Explain to children in simple, non-graphic terms the ways in which offenders groom, manipulate, and sexually abuse.
Remind youth that saying “no” goes hand in hand with reporting the behavior and not keeping secrets.
Have an "Open door" policy at home when guests or family are over, so that no child is behind closed doors with others.
Learn more about aspects of prevention and intervention that you know little about. The following guidance and resources can help all members of a family learn about sexual development, healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviors, and strategies for creating a safe home for children and adults:
Stop It Now has links to resources such as sex education for adults and children, tips for caregivers for talking to children about sexuality, sexual development information, and instructional materials for keeping kids safe from child sexual abuse. They have a practical tip sheet on age appropriate sexual behaviors for children from preschool through adolescence, as well as guidance on embracing sexuality education as a prevention strategy.
These guidebooks cover the fundamentals, including understanding children’s sexual behaviors and helping children with sexual behavior problems, as well as links to articles on incest.
Sex Positive Families’ offers a library of sex education videos as well as workshops on puberty, “creating a consent-conscious home,” pleasure talk, and pornography. Their Sex Positive Families The Podcast invites sex positive experts to share insights that strengthen sexual health and body awareness talks in families.
Finally, these “Messages We Can All Agree On”, developed by the Sexuality Resource Center for Parents, are those we all can begin reinforcing today at home and throughout our extended family networks:
You decide who touches you.
You should never force another person into sexual activity.
Sex is dangerous when it is not freely chosen and when there are no precautions taken to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Sex can be wonderful between consenting adults who have taken the necessary precautions.
You can talk with me about your sexual concerns.
You have the right not to be in a sexual relationship.
Incest prevention is not something that is typically taught. Many aspects are similar to child sexual abuse prevention in general, but there are certain behaviors and specifics that are particularly unique to, and important for, incest prevention.
This section is a brief incest prevention “101” for adults and kids, followed by guidance, resources, and tools available through other organizations.
One of the most important aspects of incest prevention education for adults is creating, maintaining, and enforcing boundaries between adults and children. This includes boundaries between siblings, cousins, and other younger family members, as well as between adults in the same family unit. All family members should understand that no one “owns” a child’s or adult’s body, and that a child of any age has a right to their own personal space and private spots. It goes without saying - but should be emphasized clearly - that adults and children in a family should not touch children’s private parts except when being cleaned or medically cared for, and to respect when a child says “no” to any kind of touch.
Teaching adults how incest happens and the ways it manifests is crucial. Incest is far more common than most people realize and takes many forms. Sibling incest - much more common than parent-child abuse - is often overlooked or chalked up to simple curiosity or experimentation. Some families may not recognize behaviors and patterns in a family as incestuous, so being specific about incest behaviors - for example, telling sexual jokes to children, exposing oneself, and ignoring the wishes of a child who says they don’t want to hug or kiss - will help delineate safe and unsafe family behaviors. Educating adults about the incest dynamic of shaming, blaming, secrets, and threats can help expose patterns in the family. Incest is also not confined to an adult-child relationship. Child survivors may mature and continue to be abused in ways that are not as overtly sexual as when they were younger.
All adults should understand the concept of grooming, as well as the warning signs that a family member is at risk of abusing a child. Grooming is the process abusers use to gain a family’s members trust, test and break down boundaries, isolate victims, and keep the incest a secret. Grooming can be spotted by someone who knows what to look for, but to others, grooming behaviors may seem benign. Stressing the importance of confronting grooming and other concerning behaviors, and reporting known and suspected cases of incest, is so vital to keeping children safe.
Although it is not a child’s responsibility to prevent incest, we can help them understand boundaries, healthy touch, and other concepts that can help them more readily identify when something is wrong in their family and feel safe telling someone about it.
From a very young age, we should be teaching children about healthy boundaries and their right to control who touches them and how. Their body is theirs and theirs alone. Children growing up in an incestuous home are often told that an adult or an older sibling or cousin has to the right to touch them however they want, whenever they want. In some homes, children are forced to hug, kiss, or sit in the laps of their relatives, even if they don’t want to, and this sends the message to youth that they don’t have rights to their body. Teaching bodily autonomy helps kids understand that they have a say in who gets close to them. Books and videos are a great tool for teaching children about these concepts.
Teaching children the accurate names of body parts is super important so that adults understand what a child means when they report something is wrong. If children use code words for private parts, others may misinterpret what a child is reporting.
We can and should encourage kids to say “no” to touch that doesn’t feel right to them by a family member and that they have permission to tell a safe adult about it. Some children live in homes entirely comprised of abusive adults or enabling ones. We can stress to children that a trusted adult may be someone outside their home, such as a teacher, social worker, church member, or friend. The common advice to “tell your parents” when there’s a problem doesn’t work when the parents are abusive or refuse to acknowledge the incest. Kids need to know that others can and do care about their well-being and will listen.
Everyone should be aware of incest warning signs so we can keep children protected from abuse. This article contains a very extensive list of physical, behavioral, and emotional signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse, this helpful guide is a primer on recognizing the warning signs of child abuse and neglect in all its forms, and this information on warning signs in children is easily digestible. The information sheet “Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know” may also be helpful for learning to recognize child abuse symptoms, including incest.
Child grooming is the process offenders use to gain a victim’s trust and keep the abuse a secret. Those familiar with grooming behaviors can more easily spot a child at risk of incest or one who is already being abused. Darkness to Light’s Grooming and Red Flag Behaviors guide provides a comprehensive list of grooming behaviors that happen from the beginning of incest initiation onward.
It’s common for people to overlook indicators that an adult is sexually abusing a family member. If you are worried about an adult’s behavior with children, Stop It Now has excellent guidance for learning about and responding to these warning signs, including strategies for talking with these adults and setting appropriate boundaries.
When children are molested by siblings and other family members close to them in age, this is harmful and traumatic to children. Although it’s common for people to assume this behavior is “just play” or experimentation, we should never ignore it, especially when the child has been coerced, forced, threatened, or manipulated. Research shows that victims of abuse by a minor experience similar trauma to those assaulted by adults. This article explores one of the least recognized forms of incest, and this one compares typical and problematic sexual behaviors of children. This brochure called “Traffic Lights” uses a red/yellow/green system for evaluating the sexual behaviors of children.
Males are victims of incest, but are often not recognized as such. Boys who have been abused face additional obstacles to coming forward and being believed. You can read about reactions male incest survivors experience and unique circumstances they face here.