Harmful sexual behaviour: children and teenagers
Sexual behaviour in childhood and adolescence ranges from typical and healthy to harmful. You can read more about this behaviour in our articles on:
- Childhood sexual behaviour: 0-3 years
- Childhood sexual behaviour: 4-6 years
- Childhood sexual behaviour: 7-9 years
- Childhood sexual behaviour: 10-11 years
- Teenage sexual behaviour: 12-14 years
- Teenage sexual behaviour: 15-17 years.
If you think your child has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour, don’t dismiss or downplay this behaviour. Negative consequences won’t help either. Instead, it’s best to respond calmly, work out how to stop the behaviour, and make sure all children involved are safe.
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.
Professional support for children and teenagers who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
It’s essential to get professional support for children who are engaging in harmful sexual behaviour. If children get professional support, it will help to stop the behaviour. It will also mean children are unlikely to continue this behaviour when they’re adults.
The first step is to visit your GP to ask for a referral to a professional or specialist service for your child or the child you’re caring for. Depending on your child’s needs and available services, this could be a psychologist, social worker or advocate and could involve individual or group programs.
You can ask your GP for help to find the right service or professional for your child. You might want to look for someone who:
- specialises in working with children
- has training and experience in working with children who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
- is the gender your child prefers.
Professionals can develop a treatment and support plan to help your child. They can also help you to understand the steps you need to take in your situation.
You might be able to arrange a trial appointment to see whether the professional is a good fit for you and your child.
Support services differ from state to state. Many states have specialist funded services for children who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour. Some private clinics and professionals also specialise in this area. These helplines and services can be good places to start to find out what’s available in your area.
Working with professionals to reduce harmful sexual behaviour
If your child is working with a professional to reduce harmful sexual behaviour, your family will probably be involved too. But the way you’re involved will depend on the program and approach the professional uses. It’s a good idea to ask the professional about this.
When you visit the professional, you could ask:
- What will a typical session look like?
- What types of strategies and activities do you usually use with children who’ve engaged in harmful sexual behaviour?
- How long will my child need support? How many sessions will my child have?
- Will there be opportunities for other family members to be involved in some sessions?
- How can I support my child between their sessions?
- How will you monitor and report back to me on my child’s progress?
If your child is working with a professional to reduce harmful sexual behaviour, you have a big role to play. For example, you can use the strategies the professional suggests with your child at home.
Family support for children and teenagers who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
If your child or the child you’re caring for has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour, there are things you can do in your everyday family life at home to support and help them.
- Be aware of when, where and with whom the harmful sexual behaviour has happened, and reduce opportunities for it to happen again.
- Stick with regular routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and school, kindergarten or preschool as much as you can.
- Take notice of any changes in your child’s behaviour – for example, eating or sleeping differently or avoiding activities or places they used to enjoy.
- Share meals together regularly as a family. Talk about the things you’d normally talk about, like what people have been doing during the day.
- Spend time together as a family and with people your child likes and trusts. For example, play family board games, go for walks, watch TV together and so on.
- Help your child to set small, achievable goals – for example, trying a new hobby or going to sports training every week.
- Praise your child’s progress and improvements in all aspects of their life.
Relationships and feelings
- Tell your child that you love them and will always be there for them, no matter what.
- Show affection in the way that your child prefers. For example, your child might prefer a high five or fist bump rather than a hug or kiss.
- Be patient if your child seems angry or frustrated. When your child is sad, distressed or worried, comfort and reassure them. Let them know their feelings are OK.
- Encourage your child to talk about their emotions, then label them together. You could say, ‘How are you feeling this morning? You’re smiling – it looks like you’re feeling happy.’
- If your child is young, try using ‘feelings’ pictures, posters, cards or toys to help your child develop their understanding of their feelings and express them. Picture and story books about feelings can also help.
- If your child is older, suggest a diary or journal. Sometimes it’s easier to write things down or draw them than say them aloud.
- If your child has trouble talking about feelings, they might find it easier if you ask them how someone else might feel in this situation.
Talking and listening
- Give your child space, time and the opportunity to talk about what has happened. Try to manage any negative feelings you have. This will help you to stay calm and give your child the support they need.
- Let your child know that you’re there to listen and talk about anything whenever your child is ready. Nothing is so awful that your child can’t talk about it with you.
- Actively listen to your child’s concerns and feelings.
- Talk about being safe, feeling safe and having the right to feel safe.
- Talk with your child about trusted adults in their support network and how they could support your child.
- Talk with your child about personal boundaries and consent.
- Talk with your child about professional support. Let them know what it will involve, how it will help, and how you’ll work through it together.
- Talk about sharing information about the harmful sexual behaviour. Your child might prefer you to be careful about who and how many people you tell.
There will be good and not-so-good days. Keep giving your child as much support as you can, even on the not-so-good days. If you’re not sure how to support your child, check in with the professional working with your child. Together you can work out how to respond.
Looking after yourself when your child has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
If your child or the child you’re caring has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour, you might experience a range of feelings. You might feel overwhelmed, pressured, confused, angry, horrified, disgusted, sad, betrayed, guilty or grief-stricken. Your family and your friends might feel this way too.
It’s important to remind yourselves that you’re not to blame.
It’s also important to look after yourself. Looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally will help you meet your child’s needs.
Support for yourself: family, friends and professionals
You don’t have to cope alone. When you seek support, it’s good for you and good for your family.
You can talk with trusted friends and family, but check beforehand with your child about sharing information. And also be clear that you want friends and family to respect your child’s privacy. Or you could talk with your GP, who can refer you to a counsellor or psychologist. Your child’s professional might also be able to recommend someone experienced in working with parents and carers or siblings. You can also call a parenting helpline or contact a child sexual safety helpline for advice.
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 child and 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?