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Understanding harmful sexual behaviours

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

Note

The use of language is important. Harmful sexual behaviours is the term used to describe a range of sexual behavioural problems demonstrated by children or young people under 18 years of age. These include behaviours that are problematic to the child’s own development, as well as those that are coercive, sexually aggressive or predatory toward others. (National Office for Child Safety, Australia’s National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021-2030)

Children and young people who have experienced disruptions to their sexual development or who have experienced any form of abuse or neglect (not limited to sexual abuse) are at an increased risk of future sexual abuse and of developing unsafe, harmful or abusive behaviours (Kellogg, 2009; Staiger, 2005; Smith et al, 2019).

Not all children who have experienced sexual abuse engage in armful sexual behaviours. There may other causes which need to be considered during assessment. This can include physical or emotional harm, exposure to domestic and family violence, neglect, stressful life events such as parental death, divorce, placement instability, parenting factors including coercive and rejecting parenting, poor supervision and excessive physical discipline (Friedrich, 2002; Letourneau, Schoenwald & Sheidow, 2004; Merrick, Litrownik, Everson & Cox, 2008).

For younger children with less concerning behaviours, managing their behaviours by re-directing the child towards a safe activity has shown some successes. For more concerning behaviours, engagement with therapeutic services has been found helpful in addressing these behaviours (Chaffin et al, 2011; Elkovitch et al, 2009). 

Note

The following sections focus on sexual behaviour that victimises other children as opposed to behaviour that is inwardly directed, for example, compulsive masturbation.

Practice prompt

Be mindful about the way a child with harmful sexual behaviours is described when talking or case-noting. Labels like ‘offender’ and ‘perpetrator’ are pathologising and can alienate the child and family, creating an additional burden. It is more appropriate to use the term ‘child with harmful sexual behaviours'. Refer to the Overview section for further information on the use of language regarding child sexual abuse.

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