Working with children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour: evidence based guidance for professionals working with children and young people

Guidance to support professionals who work with children and young people to identify, prevent and mitigate harm caused by children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

Responding to behaviour across the continuum

Using the continuum presented on page 16 we can begin to better understand the nature of a child’s behaviours and the impact on themselves and others. This enhanced understanding improves our capability to provide documented, measured, trauma- informed, and developmentally appropriate responses.

The Scottish Government’s Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) approach and the National Guidance for Child Protection provide a national framework for agencies and practitioners at local level to design and agree on ways of working which promote the wellbeing and safety of children and young people. This extends to young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour.

GIRFEC lies at the heart of all the child policy of Scottish Government and it aims to ensure that all children and young people get the right help at the right time from the right people. GIRFEC:

  • is child-focused - it ensures the child or young person and their family are at the heart of decision-making and the support available to them.
  • is based on an understanding of the wellbeing of a child in their current situation - it takes into consideration the wider influences on a child or young person and their developmental needs when thinking about their wellbeing, so that the right support can be offered.
  • is based on timely support - it aims to ensure needs are identified as early as possible to avoid bigger concerns or problems developing.
  • requires joined-up working - it is about children, young people and families, and the services they need working together in a coordinated way to meet their specific needs and improve their wellbeing.

GIRFEC’s purpose is to support children and young people so that they can grow up feeling loved, safe and respected and realise their full potential. It identifies eight wellbeing indicators, confirming that at home, in education or the wider community, every child and young person should be: Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible, Included.

The GIRFEC approach means that these key principles drive the care and protection of children:

Safety: Perceived risks must be explicitly assessed and addressed at every stage in care and transition planning with the child or young person and those professionals and family members significant to them.

Wellbeing: The child or young person’s needs are central. Gaps, losses, past trauma and harm must be recognised and responded to at a pace and in a manner that is attuned to each individual. Wellbeing indicators provide a foundation for holistic assessment, planning and support.

Voice: The child or young person’s experience, views, wishes and feelings must be heard in daily life and in all decisions taken about their care.

Strengths: The potential and resilience of each child or young person must be appreciated and nurtured. Relationships and connections within their family and community which provide resources to the child or young person are promoted and supported.

It should be recognised that the nature and level of the service must also respond to other needs beyond harmful sexual behaviour (e.g. if an investigation into a child or young person who is displaying inappropriate behaviour revealed significant issues around neglect and emotional abuse, interventions would need to focus on supporting parental capacity and promoting emotional safety at home, as well as work around appropriate boundaries).

Similarly the wellbeing of children or young people who display harmful sexual behaviour should be considered over and beyond risk and consideration should be given to whether interventions promote the GIRFEC wellbeing indicators (see above).

Relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education may be an aspect of support for children of all ages and at all stages of the continuum. The diagram below demonstrates the key role of RSHP education as a preventative measure for ALL children and also for those who exhibit any form of sexual behaviour that sits on the continuum. Parents have the principle role in helping children with their social and sexual development, and school is also critically important in ensuring children receive the right messages in relation to RSHP education.

Continuum of actions to prevent harmful sexual behaviour and intervene when harmful behaviour arises. All children and young people should receive sex education and child sexual abuse prevention education. Early intervention should take place for children displaying lower level problematic sexual behaviours or attitudes. For the few children who display harmful sexual behaviour targeted intervention will be required and will begin with screening and assessment to determine how much intervention is required. Interventions include parent education, general therapeutic help, specialist therapeutic help. For very few cases, a justice response might be required.

Where behaviour has led to harm of another child or young person, a child protection response in line with the National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland is necessary. Impacts on the child or young person affected may range from feeling uncomfortable and ashamed when exposed to harmful sexual behaviour, to significant health and mental health issues. Some children or young people at the time of abuse are also asymptomatic, showing few signs of harm at that time, but with traumatic impact becoming apparent in later years. The response should not be minimised because the abuse was perpetrated by a child or young person rather than an adult. Research suggests that, some children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse or harm by another child or young person display many of the same trauma impacts as children sexually harmed by adults (Shaw, Lewis, Loeb, Rosado, & Rodriguez, 2000: O’Brien, 2010).

Finding out that their child has displayed harmful sexual behaviour towards others can be very distressing for many parents, and minimisation and/or denial are common responses when confronted with information about their child’s behaviour. Similarly, shame and fear of consequences means that children may also deny or minimise behaviour, and parental messaging might then make it more difficult for the child or young person to acknowledge their behaviour. It is important to respond to these presentations sensitively, recognising that minimisation and denial are dynamic and often shift in time when individuals are given space to acknowledge feelings and information about how relevant intervention focus on moving forward and making safer choices in the future.

The Good Lives Model

The Good Lives Model is a framework for reducing harmful sexual behaviour. The model encourages practitioner to identify human needs under the eight categories of having fun, achieving, being my own person, having people in my life, having purpose and making a difference, emotional health, sexual health and physical health. These needs are similar to the GIRFEC wellbeing indicators – Safe, Healthy, Active, Nurtured, Achieving, Responsible, Respected and Included. Sometimes, when a child tries to meet these needs, they do so in a way that is not appropriate, or that can be harmful to themselves or others. This can be for a variety of reasons but can include a lack of knowledge or skills to meet these needs in more appropriate ways and a lack of support or opportunities to develop this knowledge and skills. An action plan integrating the Good Lives Model and GIRFEC wellbeing indicators has been developed by the Central Sexual Health Team. The model encourages practitioners to meet fundamental needs in healthier ways, by developing targeted skills and having experiences that will allow them to achieve this.

See: The Good Lives Model



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