The Effects of Sexual Abuse by a Family Member on Survivors and the Importance of Finding a Supportive Community

Sexual abuse by a family member, otherwise known as incest, can have lasting effects on a child’s development and sense of safety. Having positive community connections and support can help survivors of incest manage the effects and begin healing.

How common is sexual abuse by a family member?

Child sexual abuse is an underreported crime, making it difficult to know its true impact. Many survivors wait to report child sexual abuse, particularly when it has been committed by a family member, or never report it at all. Although statistics vary, research suggests:

  • Of sexual abuse victims that come to law enforcement’s attention, more than a quarter are victimized by a family member, while 60 percent are abused by someone else in their social network.
  • The majority of juvenile victims know the perpetrator, and approximately 34 percent of perpetrators in cases of child sexual abuse are family members.

Knowing how incest sexual abuse affects a survivor is a step towards managing emotions, memories, and triggers in the body. Experiencing upsetting memories, in any form, may cause a survivor to feel a variety of emotions like fear, anger, or sadness. Part of learning to manage memories begins with understanding what is causing (or “triggering”) them.

What triggers memories of abuse in survivors?

For many survivors of sexual abuse, memories of the abuse often resurface in adulthood. Some triggers can occur without warning, catching a survivor off-guard, while other triggers are more easily identifiable. A trigger may elicit strong memories associated with the trauma and can lead to emotional and behavioral reactions as if the trauma was recurring in the present. In general, there are eight categories of triggers.

  • A sound. i.e. the tone of someone’s voice, sirens, stomping sounds on the floor, a ticking clock, a certain song, the beeping of a car, or a computer noise.
  • A smell. i.e. coffee brewing, the fragrance of a cologne, cigarettes, and alcohol can be triggering.
  • Something a survivor sees. i.e. a person, a building or city block, holiday decorations, a scene on TV, or an expression on someone’s face can be triggering.
  • A taste. i.e. something bitter, a holiday meal, and sweet treats can be triggering.
  • A touch. i.e. an unwanted hug, crowded spaces, or a certain temperature can be triggering.
  • Physical sensations. i.e. body memories may be present, the feeling of a constricted throat, a racing heart, and an upset stomach can be triggering.
  • An emotion. i.e. feelings of fear, terror, shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness, and rage may be triggering especially when these emotions arise at any moment of the day.
  • A specific event. i.e. a holiday, the season of the year, a birthday, or a time of day can be triggering.

Experiencing, acknowledging, and understanding triggers is a normal part of the healing process. Identifying ways to manage reactions can be helpful in a survivor's healing journey to feel grounded and safe. This can take practice, and a survivor does not have to do this alone. Meaningful human connection can come from friends, family members, romantic relationships, health care professionals, and other social outlets. Investing in connection is vital after a traumatic experience. Having a space to be cared for compassionately can help survivors learn to be gentle with themselves as they process and heal from painful experiences.

Community & Connection for Support

Connection, companionship, and meaningful relationships that are built off of safety, trust, and love foster the support and understanding necessary to help survivors feel stronger emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. Identifying support systems can be a lifeline for healing from sexual abuse by a family member. Support systems can include support groups specializing in helping survivors of sexual abuse by a family member, religious organizations, family members, friends, social organizations, and/or mentors. Mentors can help guide survivors and provide them with tools for healing after trauma.

Seeking help from a support group, therapist, or health care professional does not mean that a survivor is weak; recognizing and reaching out for help is a sign of inner strength. These types of professional resources can provide survivors with support in their emotional, physical, and mental healing journeys.

Where can I get more resources?

  • To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. The services are anonymous and confidential.
  • For additional resources in your local community, visit Survivors of Incest Anonymous, an organization that can help you find survivor support groups in your area.

RAINN would like to give a special thanks to our Speakers Bureau members who contributed information and resources to this page: Suzanne Isaza, Josephine Anne Lauren, and Rona Brodrick, founding members of Incest AWARE, and Jane Epstein from siblingsexualtrauma.com and 5WAVES.org.

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