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Understanding sexually reactive behaviours

Note

The use of language is important. Sexually reactive behaviours (SRB) is an umbrella term to describe problem sexual behaviours, sexually abusive behaviours and high risk sexual behaviours that are not harmful to others.

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).

Not all children who have experienced sexual abuse engage in SRB. SRB may have 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, Funderburk, Bard, Valle & Gurwitch, 2011; Elkovitch, Latzman, Hansen, & Flood, 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 SRB 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 sexually reactive behaviours'. Refer to the Overview section for further information on the use of language regarding child sexual abuse.

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