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. (See our page on Sexual Safety at Home for more prevention resources.)
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.
“Do not accept the shame that belongs to your abuser. Deshame yourself, beautiful incest survivor!”
- Pamela Clark, Deshaming Podcast