Incest Warning Signs

Q&A With Incest Researcher and Social Worker
LeslieBeth, Ed.D, MSS

Q. Actress Mackenzie Phillips announced that she had incestuous relationships with her father John Phillips. How common is this situation? Do most of these relationships involve father-daughter rather than mother-son?

A: Although childhood sexual abuse includes mother-child incest, more men commit child-family member sexual abuse. The most frequent male family offenders are step-fathers, fathers, uncles and grandfathers.

Q. What are the warning signs?

A: From a child’s perspective, warning signs include sudden or increased physical contact that might pass as acceptable with a family member. For example, suddenly Grandpa wants you to sit on his lap more often. Or, an uncle wants to caress a child’s hair or cheek more often.

Other forms of physical contact are more blatantly sexual, such as Mackenzie Philip’s intercourse with her father. Childhood sexual abuse can also include fondling of breasts, rubbing up and down against a child and sexual comments. Children often have a good sense that something is “wrong,” but they may not tell anyone about these sexual experiences. Children learn rather quickly that the sexual activity with a family member is not normal.

Some offenders make it very clear that if a child reveals their “secret,” the offender will harm the child and/or the family. Children also come to realize that telling someone puts the family in terrible jeopardy. What, for example, would Mom do if she knew about it? Would the family break up? How would the family get along without Dad? A great deal is at stake, and no child wants the responsibility of causing a crisis in the family. If a child does reveal “the secret,” it is not uncommon for other family members to deny or not accept that sexual abuse occurred.

Some siblings, for example, side with the offender, saying that no evidence or hints of abuse exist. To be fair to these supportive siblings-and even spouses-it is highly possible that the offender kept the secret very well-hidden. Often, the abuser selects one or two favorite children for sexual and emotional gratification and never violates the other siblings. As a result, the other siblings never experience or even suspect that abuse is occurring.

Finally, when a family member abuses a child sexually, the abuse is not solely about sex. Offenders are often looking for comfort, closeness and approval from someone whom, in the mind of the offender, offers an opportunity for unconditional love. The closeness and need for comfort can rapidly become sexualized. Many offenders are, however, also looking for sexual gratification, power and control.

Q. What can be done to protect the child

A: All parents and caregivers should talk with each child about sexual behavior that is “wrong.” Children should be taught early about unwanted touches. Parents and caregivers should let children know that they want to know about any kind of touching or interaction with someone who makes them feel uncomfortable physically and emotionally or who touches them.

When parents set the emotional rules and establish an environment of care, children are more likely to let a family member know. Parents can also tell a child that if they are afraid to tell a family member that they can tell another adult whom the child trusts such as a teacher, minister, etc. (And no jokes, please-yes these two groups have a history of being sexual predators, but there are still good teachers and religious leaders who can help a child in need.)

Q. What is the likelihood that an incest victim will eventually seek counseling? Also, when victims seek help do they immediately admit the incest or rather do they come to treatment for issues like alcohol or drug abuse which they’ve sought to cope with the pain of the incestuous relationship?

A: Statistics can vary about the incidence of abuse, but roughly one in twenty-five women will experience some kind of sexual abuse by the time she is 18. For men, the numbers are about one in seven or eight. Since sexual abuse carries such a high degree of shame, it’s highly likely that clients will not mention it. Substance abuse, as well as suicide attempts, is a failed effort to manage the emotional pain of sexual abuse.

Q. What type of therapy/counseling is typically used in these cases?

A: There are many therapeutic treatments, including medication for depression, cognitive therapies and emotional reprocessing therapy where the client learns to come to different conclusions and understandings about the self and the experience. There are excellent training programs for therapists to learn about these therapies.

Q. What sort of therapy/counseling is typically used in these cases?

A: Every person is different, but common, long-term effects include suicide attempts, depression, substance abuse, fear of both emotional and sexual intimacy, promiscuity, prostitution and runaways, lack of career identity, inability to function at work.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, MSS is a social worker. She has been a speaker for non-profit, corporate and university organizations. Dr. Wish offers sound, research-based relationship advice that makes sense — specializing in issues such as smart dating, women’s relationship advice, career coaching, healthy families, sexual dysfunction, and leadership training.

Dr. Wish is the author of Incest, Work and Women: Understanding the Consequences of Incest on Women’s Careers, Work and Dreams.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, D.C., is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world with nearly 150,000 members in 56 chapters throughout the United States and its territories. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

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