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Responding to sexually reactive behaviours

This part focuses on areas to consider when responding to a child with sexually reactive behaviours (SRB) including whether the child with SRB can remain at home, return home, and planning for the safe return home of the child with SRB. It provides responses for sexual behaviour that victimises other children as opposed to behaviour that is inwardly directed, for example, compulsive masturbation.

Note

A child or young person may exhibit sexually reactive behaviours (SRB) that are not harmful to anyone except themselves. An example of this behaviour is self-injurious or persistent masturbation in preference to other activities which can interfere with involvement in daily responsibilities and activities. These behaviours require support and responses that meet the needs of the child. Age appropriate education about safe sexual behaviours, treatment options and preventing sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and access to counselling may help. They all aim to support a young person in understanding how their body works, how to feel good about their sexuality, and to learn healthy ways to express their sexual feelings (Brennan and Graham, 2012).

Working with a child who displays sexually reactive behaviour can challenge ideas of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’. This work requires strong partnerships, collaborative practice and a relationship-based approach that is responsive to:

  • the child who has experienced sexual abuse
  • the child demonstrating the SRB
  • the parents
  • the community.

Tip

A key protective factor for children with SRB is connection to social supports. Connecting with the child and understanding what drives their prosocial behaviours as well as their unsafe behaviours is critical to building safety.

Responding to sibling sexual abuse

Note

This part includes specific considerations for responding to sibling sexual abuse. Refer to Decide whether the child with sexually reactive behaviours can remain in the home for general information and guidance on responding to a child with sexually reactive behaviours.

When investigating or responding to concerns about sibling sexual abuse, consider family functioning and parental response.

Develop an understanding of the family functioning, including an assessment of other forms of abuse and neglect. The family context for adolescents who sexually abuse siblings is characterised by instability, disorganisation, inadequate supervision, rejection, dissatisfaction with the family environment, marital discord, physical abuse and violence (Tidefors, Arvidsson, Ingevaldson, & Larsson, 2010).

Understand whether the parents are aware of the sexual abuse or of previous incidences, and if so, how they responded, including whether they took action to stop the abuse and seek therapeutic interventions. A parent’s response to sibling sexual abuse impacts on the recovery of the child who has been sexually abused, and the likelihood of sustained behaviour change from the child who has displayed the sexually reactive behaviours. Supporting parents to identify appropriate ways to respond to both children given their different needs can have a vastly positive impact on the trajectory and wellbeing of both children.

Note

When responding to families where sibling sexual abuse has occurred, consider that 40-90% of the parents whose children engage in sibling sexual abuse have themselves experienced physical, sexual or severe emotional abuse or neglect (Ryan, 1991 as cited in Grant, Thorton & Chamarette, 2006).

Make an assessment as to whether the abusive sibling and abused sibling can safely remain in the home together, and assess the parent’s ability and willingness to respond to and protect both children. (Refer to Decide whether the child with sexually reactive behaviours can remain at home). If the child who has engaged in sibling sexual abuse remains in the home, develop a detailed safety plan with the entire family, and safety and support network where possible, to minimise future abuse. Include in the plan a focus on access and opportunity to engage in the abuse, and how to safety plan around such opportunities (Turnell & Essex, 2006).

It is beneficial for the entire family including parents, the abused sibling, the abusive sibling and any other siblings to be involved in therapy for the purpose of recovery, improved family functioning and improved personal and physical boundaries.

Legal obligations regarding sibling sexual abuse

Practice prompt

Children aged 10 years and older can be charged with a criminal offence. When concerns are received of sibling sexual abuse and the child or young person who is alleged to be the offender is 10 years or older, forward the concerns to the QPS, in accordance with legislative requirements in the Child Protection Act 1999, section 14(2).

In order to charge a child aged 10-14 years, the police must be able to prove that the child knew that what they did was wrong and understood the consequences for their actions. The decision to charge a child or young person with a crime has very specific parameters. All Australian jurisdictions consider that a child under 10 years old cannot be charged with a criminal offence. This is because children under 10 years of age have been deemed incapable of committing a crime because they are developmentally unable to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Responding when others minimise sibling sexual abuse

Attention

Be aware of minimising the child’s experience of sibling sexual abuse in your own practice. Be ready to challenge the views of family members, community members and other professionals who appear to minimise sibling sexual abuse (Rowntree, 2007).

Unhelpful responses from family members and professionals can make it difficult for a child who has been sexually abused to maintain their disclosure, and to receive support and therapeutic assistance. The below table contains common reactions or comments that minimise sibling sexual abuse, and responses for practitioners to help people understand the seriousness of sibling sexual abuse and what children need when sibling sexual abuse occurs.

Unhelpful responses Practice prompts and conversation ideas to support helpful thinking

The abuse is natural or normal.

'They're just playing, it's only experimentation.’ 'Boys just do that, it’s just a stage.’

Explore the person’s beliefs and values base. Offer information informed by research, for example, signs or indicators that there is a power imbalance between the two children or dynamics of coercion and control. Refer the person to the Traffic lights resource to help them understand what is developmentally appropriate behaviour.

“Can you tell me a bit more about what kind of behaviour you view as normal experimentation for [child’s] age/developmental stage?”

“What kind of behaviour would you think is more worrying?”

“I wonder if I could share with you a resource that I’ve come across that helps make sense of different sexual behaviour in children and young people?”

The abuse is the victim’s fault.

‘[Child] asked for it’

‘[Child] is a slut / promiscuous’

Responses like these can provide insight into the beliefs and attitudes held by the person saying them regarding sexual abuse. Support the person to focus on the needs of the child or young person who has been sexually abused.

“Children who have believing and supportive adults in their life have a greater chance of recovery and healing than those who experience judgment”.

 “Regardless of how you perceive a child, a child never ‘asks for’ or ‘deserves’ to be sexually abused.”

The abuse is not serious.

‘It’s only your brother. It can’t be abuse if it was your brother’.

‘It was just a game’.

‘You haven’t proved it, maybe it wasn’t that bad’.

Let the person know how harmful sibling sexual abuse can be for a victim. Provide them with relevant research to help their understanding.

“We need to take sibling sexual abuse seriously. It can have devastating impacts on children and their families”.

“Even if [child who was sexually abused] does not seem like they have been impacted by the abuse, without support they can develop trauma and exibit behaviours due to trauma as they grow to understand what has happened to them”.

 “A child’s disclosure is a very reliable indicator of sexual abuse in its own right."

The abuse is a private family matter.

The abuse is a taboo subject.

‘[Child] is betraying their family talking about this’.

Talk with the person to help them understand that secrecy allows sexual abuse to continue. Safety planning is difficult for families if they don’t have a network (or group of people) who are fully aware of what the worries are and who can step in to help.

“I understand it feels upsetting to talk about what has happened. In order for us to keep [child] safe and to support [child with SRB] so they don’t continue to hurt [child], Child Safety and other safe adults within your network need to talk about the abuse to make a plan”.

“Many people feel very uncomfortable talking openly about sex and sexual abuse. This is not unusual. However, if we don’t talk about what happened, we can’t acknowledge what happened for the [child] and support their healing”.

“I wonder what can be done to help you feel more comfortable to talk about how we can keep [child] safe."

The abuse is part of romantic love or a sexual relationship.

‘He must have loved you’.

“Sibling sexual abuse is never ok because it is not the same as a sexual relationship between two consenting adults. It is a sign that something has gone wrong for that family in terms of relationship and boundaries. [Child with SRB] may not have intended to harm, however we need to work with the impact of the abuse, not the intention of the abuse."

Responding to peer to peer sexual abuse

Where it has been assessed that mutual sexual behaviour between peers is abusive, both children / young people require support. The focus of any intervention for the child who has engaged in sexually abusive behaviour is to support them to learn clear rules about:

  • sexual touch and behaviour
  • where it is appropriate for them to engage in sexual activity
  • who it is appropriate for them to engage in sexual activity with
  • when sexual activity is not appropriate
  • informed consent.

Note

The child or young person may require therapeutic support and intervention to assist them to identify and respond to any unmet needs that they were seeking to address when they engaged in the sexual abuse of their peer.

Be clear in documentation and when talking with key people in the child’s life about who is responsible for education and support for the young person. Children and young people in out of home care, particularly those in unstable care arrangements, are more likely to miss out on important conversations and support around sexually reactive behaviours and healthy sexual development. Ensure there is a clear plan in place for ongoing conversations and support as the child or young person’s developmental stages change, or if the child or young person needs someone to talk to about sexual development.

The child or young person who has experienced sexual abuse by a peer requires similar support and psychoeducation regarding:

  • appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • their right to autonomy over their body
  • respectful relationships
  • who they can trust and feel safe to seek out if they have worries about past sexual abuse or behaviour of any peer that causes them distress, fear or discomfort.

Attention

A child who has sexually abused a peer is at risk of sexually abusing their siblings. When responding to peer to peer SRB, conduct a holistic family assessment for the child with SRB and provide their siblings with an opportunity to disclose any abuse.

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