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  • Incest refers to sexual acts between relatives. Often, those who commit incest do not use force. Instead, the person convinces the child that love, acceptance, and good family relationships are related to having sex.
  • If you think incest is happening to a child you know, contact your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. The child needs help from a mental health professional. The whole family needs to be involved in treatment.


What is incest?

Incest refers to sexual acts between relatives. Sexual acts may be between parent or stepparent and child, grandparent and grandchild, brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews or nieces, or first cousins. Often, those who commit incest do not use force. Instead, the person convinces the child that love, acceptance, and good family relationships are related to having sex. Often, incest continues over several years rather than being something that only happens one time.

Sexual contact between an adult and a child is sexual abuse. It is never OK for any reason. Any suspected abuse of this kind should be reported.

Incest between those who are close in age may be less damaging, but still harmful. Incest between a brother and sister, for example, often leaves children or teens feeling guilty once they realize it is not normal in society.

What are signs of incest?

Signs of incest may include:

  • Having vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain, itching, swelling, or discharge
  • Having trouble walking or sitting
  • Being depressed or withdrawing from family members and friends
  • Being very secretive
  • Either avoiding or being unusually interested in things of a sexual nature, acting sexual, or drawing sexually related pictures
  • Having sleep problems or nightmares
  • Having stomach pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, or a sexually transmitted disease
  • Refusing to go to school or having grades drop
  • Saying that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or being afraid that there is something wrong with them in the genital area
  • Being angry or aggressive
  • Being anxious, fearful, or trying to run away
  • Self-harming or trying to commit suicide

Children who see abuse but are not victims themselves may also show some of these same symptoms. These symptoms could also be caused by something other than incest.

What can I do to help?

Even small children can be taught how to avoid abuse. Teach your child the proper names of body parts. Teach children that their bodies belong to them, and that no one has a right to touch or hurt them in any way. This applies to strangers as well as people they know. They must know that it is OK to say no to anything that makes them uncomfortable, even if it is a relative.

Children should be taught respect for adults and authority. Respect does not mean they have to do everything they are told to do if it involves incest or keeping a secret. Children should know that they must tell someone right away. This could be a trusted teacher, school nurse, guidance counselor, relative, or friend.

If you suspect incest is happening to a child you know, carefully and calmly ask the child about it. Be careful not to judge or blame. Listen and let the child talk freely. Tell the child that it is not their fault and that they will be protected from the abuser. If a child tells you that they have been abused, take it seriously. Don’t deny it and don’t let the child feel guilty or that they will be punished.

If you suspect incest, contact the local police or child protective services, no matter who the abuser is. Get help for the child. The child should see a healthcare provider and a mental health professional. The parent of an abused child may also need help. It is very painful to know that your child has been abused.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-03-01
Last reviewed: 2018-07-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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