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Key messages

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This page was updated on 14 September 2022. To view changes, please see page updates

  • Keep the safety of the child who has experienced sexual abuse at the centre of your work, even where you are not the primary practitioner for this child.
  • Do not minimise the impact of harmful sexual behaviours on the child who has been abused. Seek to understand the impact on the child who has been abused.
  • Be aware of the risk factors forharmful sexual behaviours but be careful not to label young people who display a number of these behaviours as 'dangerous'.
  • Be aware that girls who display harmful sexual behaviours have often experienced the most severe types of childhood victimisation and are a very vulnerable and at-risk group.
  • Overlaying adult connotations of sex and sexuality when assessing harmful sexual behaviours in young children is unhelpful. Young children (pre-pubescent) are rarely motivated to engage in harmful sexual behaviours for the purpose of sexual gratification. This may, however, be a factor for post-pubescent children and young people.
  • Talk to parents and community members about the fact that children with harmful sexual behaviours are not junior adult sex offenders and that most children do not continue their harmful sexual behaviours into adulthood.
  • Whether the child (with harmful sexual behaviours) is at home or in care, focus on case planning interventions that safely increase the child’s connection to their parents and their community (including their peers), as this is a key protective factor.
  • Understand possible triggers (psychological, emotional and behavioural factors that may evoke a trauma response) for harmful sexual behaviours and address these when planning for the child with harmful sexual behaviours to return home.
  • Understand what makes supervision effective, and assess the parent and any other supervisory person’s capacity to take on this role when planning for a child with harmful sexual behaviours to return home.
  • Children need to learn about how to have healthy relationships at the same time as they are learning about unhealthy relationships. Whilst working to prevent sexual abuse of any child, take the opportunity to talk about how to have relationships based on trust that are developmentally appropriate and are characterised by reciprocal respect. It is developmentally expected that adolescents have sexual urges and wonderings. Speak to them about behaviours that are safe as well as those that are unsafe. 
  • Take into consideration cultural factors when understanding and responding to harmful sexual behaviours. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, considerations such as who is the most appropriate person to have conversations with the child or young person about sex and sexuality, bearing in mind cultural protocols and respect for men’s business and women’s business, are vital.

Further reading

Read the Working with parents part for information to help support and engage parents who are struggling to process information about their child’s sexual abuse or harmful sexual behaviour.

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