Children and harmful sexual behaviour
It’s normal for young children to explore their own bodies and the bodies of others by looking or touching. It’s also normal for children aged over 10 years to start having romantic or sexual feelings towards others and to act on these feelings.
You can read more about typical and healthy sexual behaviour in children and teenagers in our articles on:
- childhood sexual behaviour in preschoolers
- childhood sexual behaviour in school-age children
- teenage sexuality
- teenage relationships.
But some sexual behaviour is harmful. This kind of behaviour could be sexual obsession, exploration or experimentation that has gone too far. It could also be serious assault.
It’s essential to get professional support for children to address harmful sexual behaviour. If children get professional support, they’re unlikely to continue this behaviour when they’re adults.
Children who engage in harmful sexual behaviour might or might not know they’re doing something inappropriate. It’s not helpful to call them ‘perpetrators’, ‘abusers’ or ‘offenders’. It’s also important to recognise that it’s the behaviour that’s harmful, not the child.
When your child has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour: your feelings
If your child has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour, you might feel overwhelmed or helpless. You might also feel shock, denial, anger, shame, embarrassment, guilt, self-blame or fear. All these feelings are natural.
How you respond to your child’s behaviour and your child is important. Your responses can affect how able or willing your child is to address the behaviour.
It’s important to manage any negative feelings you have. This will help you to stay calm and give your child the support they need to address their behaviour.
It’s also important not to dismiss or downplay your child’s harmful sexual behaviour. It’s unlikely to go away without professional support.
Professional support for children who’ve engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
It’s essential to get professional support for your child and family.
This support should be from people who have expertise and specialised training in addressing harmful childhood sexual behaviour. These professionals can develop a treatment and support plan to help your child address their behaviour. They can also help you to understand the steps you need to take in your particular situation.
Professional support for your child will probably involve you and your family. But the way the professionals involve you will depend on the program and the specific approach they use. It’s a good idea to ask the professional how you’ll be involved.
If you’re not sure where to start, see your GP. They’ll be able to refer your child to a specific service, psychologist or other professional. You could also call a parenting helpline or contact a child sexual safety helpline for advice. It’s a good idea to check that any professionals you’re referred to have experience in helping families address harmful sexual behaviour.
There are also specialised services for children who engage in harmful sexual behaviour. These services are confidential and are usually free. What’s on offer and how they work differs from state to state.
If the harmful sexual behaviour is extreme, under certain circumstances a child aged 10 years or older can be charged with sexual offences.
Services for children who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
ACT Community Services – Melaleuca Place (children under 12 years)
New South Wales
- NSW Health – Sexualised Behaviour Program or Sparks Clinic (children under 10 years)
- NSW Health – New Street Services (children aged 10-17 years)
- Act for Kids – Sexual Abuse Counselling Service (SACS) (children under 12 years)
- Bravehearts – Counselling (children under 12 years)
- Laurel Place – Children and Families Program (children under 12 years)
- Bravehearts – Turning Corners (children aged 12-18 years)
- Children’s Health Queensland – Child and Youth Forensic Outreach Service (children of all ages)
There are currently no specialist services in the Northern Territory. You can get help from the general services listed below.
- SA Community – Adolescent Sexual Assault Prevention Program (children 12-18 years)
- Women’s and Children’s Hospital – Child Protection Services
Sexual Assault Support Service – Therapeutic Interventions: Problem Sexual Behaviour and Sexually Abusive Behaviour (children of all ages)
Victorian Government Health and Human Services – Sexually Abusive Behaviours Treatment Services (children of all ages)
Parkerville Children and Youth Care (children of all ages)
If you can’t find a specialised service in your area, general services that can help include:
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
- community health services
- mental health services
- private practitioners, like psychologists
- sexual health services.
Online support options for teenagers
The Help Wanted course is an online course for young people who are sexually attracted to children and want to live a safe, healthy, non-offending life.
Supporting your child who has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Your child will need your love and support. You can support your child by:
- being available if your child wants to talk to you
- actively listening to your child’s concerns and feelings
- reassuring your child that you love them and will support them
- using any strategies that the professionals working with your child recommend
- praising your child’s progress and improvements
- helping your child understand personal boundaries, appropriate behaviour and consent
- setting and sticking to boundaries – for example, where your child can go and who they can spend time with.
Getting support for yourself
You don’t have to cope alone. When you seek support, it’s good for you and good for your family.
Professional advice and support can help you work out the best way to manage your situation. And a professional can answer your questions. These questions might include the following:
- Why is my child behaving in this way?
- How do I keep my other children safe?
- Do I have legal obligations to inform others, like school, sports clubs and carers?
- How do I protect my child’s privacy?
- How do I talk with my child about what happened?
It can also help to share your feelings and worries with trusted friends or family members. And if you feel like you’re not coping, talk with your GP. They can refer you to a professional who can help.