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Risk factors for developing harmful sexual behaviours

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This page was updated on 19 September 2022. To view changes, please see page updates

Understanding harmful sexual behaviours is fundamental to practice in Child Safety. Many children with harmful sexual behaviours have been exposed to repeated childhood trauma. There are a number of risk factors that can contribute to children exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours including:

  • experiencing domestic and family violence
  • chronic, long term neglect
  • witnessing sexual activity that is inappropriate
  • being a victim of sexual abuse.

Further reading

Refer to the Sexual Development in Children and Young People - The Developmental Wall in the Understanding and responding to child sexual abuse section of this practice kit to further understand how the above experiences contribute to a child exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours.

While a traumatic childhood is a significant risk factor for developing harmful sexual behaviours, most children who experience trauma through abuse, neglect, domestic violence or sexual abuse do not sexually abuse other children.

When working with children with harmful sexual behaviours, use a trauma informed approach. Sometimes, just as in the general population, a child may have other underlying causes of their behaviour that require another approach (for example, disability, underlying pathology). In these circumstances, speak to a senior team leader or senior practitioner for further guidance on appropriate advice and interventions.  

Further reading

Read the New South Wales Office of the Senior Practitioner Child sexual abuse What does the research tell us? A literature review (2016), Chapter 7, for more information about risk factors for developing harmful sexual behaviours.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report, vol. 10 (2017).

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