The warning signs of incest: What parents can do to stop sexual abuse in the family
By Rosemary Black
September 24, 2009 / Daily News
With Mackenzie Phillips' bombshell allegations of a 10-year affair with her father, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, the sensitive subject of incest is back in the news. It’s estimated that 20 million Americans have been the victims of parent incest as children, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, and an estimated 16,000 cases occur annually.
Such figures could be low, though, according to the center, since pressure from family members, plus threats from the abuser, often make the victim reluctant to reveal the incest.
While it can be very difficult for a family member to know if incest is occurring in the household, there are certain warning signs, said Keith Fadelici, licensed clinical social worker and the assistant director of Victims Assistance Services.
“There are no definite signs and anything on the list as an indicator is always potentially explainable in another way,” he explained. “But some of the noteworthy signs are that a child will either avoid or be very attached to that parent, that the child may act more sexual, and that a child may have either extreme fearlessness or fearfulness.”
Often, he said, young victims will respond to incest with self-injurious behavior such as drug abuse, cutting themselves or acquiring an eating disorder. These are ways that kids try to adapt to what’s happening to them, Fadelici said. Incest victims are in deep emotional pain because it is an authority figure in their life, upon whom they depend, who is victimizing them, he explained.
Incest is more likely to occur in a family where at least one parent is a stepparent, said Alan Davis, head of the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence, and it shows up far more often in homes where both parents are not the natural parents.
Incest marks its victims with traumatic and long-lasting effects, Davis said.
“They grow up not trusting, and it can be pretty devastating,” he explained. “And if the incest becomes a criminal matter, then it can be even more traumatic as the child must be interviewed by nonfamily members.”
Children younger than age 3 when they were victimized are less likely to suffer long-term effects, Davis said. In all cases, counseling and therapy should be provided.
“It’s possible to recover,” Davis said, “if you get help.”
If a parent is at all suspicious that incest is going on, it’s important to discuss concerns with the other parent.
“In homes where there is incest, there are usually a lot of secrets and a tendency to push one parent out of the picture,” Fadelici said. “We always advise people to pay attention to their gut feeling and to honor those feelings. As parents, give each other feedback and communicate openly. If there is anything that makes you uncomfortable about the other parent’s behavior, you should discuss it.”
Anyone suspicious of incest can call the 24-hour rape crisis hotline at (800) 726-4041. There is also an information and referral helpline at the National Center for Victims of Crime at (800) FYI-CALL. And there’s a sexual abuse hotline at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network at (800) 656-HOPE.