Dealing with sexually harmful behaviour in children

Understanding the child perpetrator's and victim's notion of sex is key if harmful behaviour is to be averted, reports Samantha Thorp

 Using the right language is critical. Professional terminology can be meaningless to children

Understanding the child perpetrator’s and victim’s notion of sex is key if harmful behaviour is to be averted, reports Samantha Thorp

Broaching the topic of sex with their children is a responsibility that many parents dread. For practitioners the potential for embarrassment and discomfort is often no less acute. In cases of sexually harmful behaviour, the gravity of this sensitive issue is likely to compound feelings of awkwardness.

Yet with about one in three reported sexual offences against children committed by minors, learning to communicate effectively with children engaging in sexually harmful behaviour should be a key skill for all children’s social workers.

From the outset it can be difficult for social workers to establish what they are dealing with. Typically, their professional interest in a child is as a victim. How should they classify a child who is alleged to have committed sexually harmful behaviour? If it’s an adult who has displayed this behaviour the dividing line is clear, but in these circumstances should the young perpetrator still be considered a child in need?

Tink Palmer, chief executive of sexual abuse awareness charity the Marie Collins Foundation, acknowledges that it’s difficult for practitioners to take on board that a child has been behaving in this way. Too often the approach taken is one of two extremes. “We’re almost schizophrenic in a sense when it comes to young people and sexually harmful behaviour – people either throw the book at them or they don’t do anything about it at all.”

What is required, she says, is a dual approach: “The illegal activity has to be looked at [but] the safeguarding needs of the person who has committed these offences also have to be assessed.”

Paul Eggett, a practitioner at child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, acknowledges that these cases present real challenges for social workers. However, he is concerned that sometimes the approach taken by many is too confrontational. “The risk is that social workers feel they have to be quasi-police officers, but that’s not the role [they should adopt].”

As Eggett points out, the young person whose behaviour is under discussion will have already experienced considerable distress and may have been excluded from school. A confrontational attitude will only compound their shame and make it difficult to discuss their behaviour with any sense of openness.

Identifying the right language to use when talking to children in cases of sexually harmful behaviour is critical. The terminology typically used by professionals is unlikely to hold any meaning for children and young people, and vague phrases such as “sexually inappropriate” can cover a plethora of behaviours.

Eggett cautions against making assumptions. He highlights one instance in which a young girl told him she had had sex with a boy. Once he’d investigated further, Eggett discovered that “sex” from the girl’s perspective meant that the boy had rubbed his penis against her naval. “Understanding what sex actually means [to the child in question] is hugely important. You must explore in detail the true meaning of what they tell you.”

Nicky Mosson-Jones, clinical director at Oracle Care, whose children’s homes specialise in working with children who sexually harm, agrees. Before broaching the issues around the alleged behaviour, Mosson-Jones advises social workers to establish how advanced the child’s sexual development is: “You have to understand a child’s frame of reference. It’s important not to be approaching this from an adult perspective, making adult interpretations of a young person’s behaviour.”

Inevitably, the potential for confusion is greater when talking to a young child about sexually harmful behaviour. The best way to establish the most appropriate sexual terms to use with young children is to use non-verbal approaches. Images of the female or male body could allow them to point to the part they are talking about or you could ask them at the outset to name different parts of the body. These are tools that can also be useful for young people with learning difficulties.

Dealing with cases of sexually harmful behaviour inevitably brings social workers into contact with the family of the alleged perpetrator. Here too communication can be challenging as parents may resist engagement or deny that the behaviour took place.

Clinical practice manager Alice Newman, from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, says parents who contact the charity’s helpline are often very distressed. “It’s a big deal for parents to even come forward and seek professional help,” she says. “They are often in a hell of a state.”

Practitioners should provide guidance helping parents to make sure their child knows their behaviour is unacceptable and to set boundaries that ensure the behaviour is not repeated, she adds. “This gives parents a starting place [and] some confidence about how to get a control on this.”

Tips for challenging sexually harmful behaviour in children

● Remember that the alleged perpetrator should also be considered as a victim; displays of sexually harmful behaviour are indicative of underlying problems. However don’t assume the perpetrator will necessarily have been a victim of sexual abuse themselves.

● Try to develop a grasp of the young person’s sexual development – what do they understand about sexual activity? As well as talking to their parents, it can be helpful to speak to the child’s teachers to see how far along the personal, health and social education curriculum the child is.

● Use clear, jargon-free language when discussing their behaviour. Adjust the terms you use according to their age and sexual development and be sure that you fully understand the words and phrases that the child uses to talk about the sexually harmful behaviour.

● Non-verbal aids can be helpful. As well as using images to define body parts, puppets or dolls can help younger children explore what has happened. There are also specially designed board games and sex education videos aimed at older children which can help act as an informal springboard for discussion.

● Try to ensure the child understands the consequences of their actions. It can be useful, if the police aren’t already involved, to bring in an officer from the local child abuse investigation team to discuss what is likely to happen if they repeat their behaviour.

● If you’re dealing with a child or young person with learning difficulties, you may need to use tailored visual aids to communicate effectively with them. Speak to their parents and other professionals who work with them to try to establish the best means of communication. Be aware that young people with learning difficulties are likely to have received less in the way of sex education than their peers and may also have had less opportunity to explore sexual issues with their parents and friends.

● Getting parents onside is crucial in the intervention process but parents can be hostile to social workers in these circumstances. Denial is a common response from parents first confronted with their child’s inappropriate sexual behaviour. This is a natural reaction, so try to remember this is unlikely to be a collusive response. It doesn’t help if the parents feel this is a huge crisis, so try to keep the parents calm, avoid placing blame and try to help them understand why their child is behaving in the way that they are.

Community Care is running a conference on Sexually Harmful Behaviour in Children and Young People on 2 November in Leeds

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This article is published in the 27 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Dealing with sexually harmful behaviour”

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