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What is incest?

Incest refers to sexual acts between relatives. Sexual acts may be between parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, or brothers and sisters. 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 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 friends or family
  • 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
  • Saying that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or being afraid that there is something wrong with them in the genital area
  • Trying to run away
  • 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 think incest is happening to a child you know, contact your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Most states have a child protective agency that will get involved, if notified.

It is important to stay calm. The children need help from a mental health professional. The whole family needs to be involved in treatment. The children will be feeling guilty enough as it is, so do not make them feel worse by shaming them or punishing them. Let the therapist help get you through this.

If you have issues or guilt feelings about incest in your past, ask your healthcare provider or a mental health professional for help.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-03-12
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
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.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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