Being on the phone lines as the Admissions Director for Star Guides Wilderness Therapy, I have listened and wept with countless parents as they relate the devastating discovery of how one of their own children has hurt another child (often a sibling) through harmful sexual behavior. Many can give me a history of struggles; others are completely blind-sided. No matter the journey, this kind of behavior always starts in one of two ways:
- The child was touched by someone much earlier in their own childhood and taught in person.
- They were exposed to graphic sexual or pornographic material and learned it virtually.
Children simply do not just wake up one day and go touch another child sexually – it’s introduced, taught, learned and then explored. They are doing exactly what a child’s brain is set up to do–imitate. Except now we have an additional addictive component fueled by easy access to pornography that can inhibit normal sexual development in children.
To add yet another layer of complexity, there are the immediate explosions of emotions that go into dealing with the reality of being the parent of both the child who has harmed and the child who has been harmed. Or perhaps being the parent of the child who has been harmed and a friend/relative of the child who did the harmful sexual behavior.
No matter the scenario – please pause, breathe, step into an adult role, and do everything possible to contain the painful emotions of anger, shame, guilt, despair and fear that are going to cascade into your life.
Your First Three Steps When You Discover Harmful Sexual Behavior
- Stay Calm
- Create & Initiate a Safety Plan
- Start Learning
1. Stay Calm – Don’t panic
I can’t stress this enough. You are entering uncharted territory and it’s going to be important for you to have a clear head and level emotions to traverse this journey responsibly. Children will follow your emotional lead. Your actions set the tone for how your family approaches this challenge.
Until you can be supported in a therapeutic setting, as a family, keep your worries, emotions, and conversations between the responsible adults close to you and only the people you completely trust.
Your children (who are probably dealing with an immense amount of guilt and shame themselves) need to feel validated and heard. Be clear, be calm, and be reassuring in your conversations with them.
2. Create & Initiate a Safety Plan to Stop the Harmful Sexual Behavior
You need to do this right away for the safety of the children involved (and potentially the rest of the family) and also so that you are able to report that you acted responsibly when the incident occurred. It can get a little dicey here because depending on the infraction and frequency of interaction, that plan may require that your family be split up for a time. Here are some suggestions you may want to consider in a Safety Plan (Source – NCSBY):
- Maintain continuous visual supervision. An adult needs to be able to see the child who has acted out, continuously at all times. This is difficult to maintain. You may have to work closely with additional support systems (relatives, friends, neighbors) to create such oversight. I’ve seen cases where the child goes to live with grandparents or adult relatives who do not have other children while things are getting sorted out.
- Install audio and video monitors/cameras throughout the home if possible.
- Make arrangements for the child to sleep in a room alone or if the home is not equipped with an extra bedroom, the child needs to be in a room with parents.
- Communicate clear rules & expectations about privacy and touching body parts.
- Establish privacy rules for bedrooms and bathrooms, such as knocking before entering.
- Ensure that personal self-care occurs in private.
- Plan for an adult to remain in charge of all children. The child with the difficulties should never be left to watch over other children.
- Protect children from sexually explicit media and materials. This includes not just devices but magazines, shopping catalogues, television programs, video games, etc.
- Demonstrate modesty in a child’s presence. This includes parents and all family members. No nudity, partial nudity, explicit displays of sexual behavior by parents or other adults/teens in front of a child.
3. Start Learning How to Help a Child With Harmful Sexual Behavior
This part is hard because of the emotional nature of what you are going to need to do. Remember, you are the single best advocate for your child. This is about help and healing.
It can be overwhelming to gather this information and you don’t have a lot of time, so we’ve broken it down into some simple steps to help start you on your path:
- Healing & restoration of the family unit
What actually has been happening? Who is involved? Gathering this information can be difficult. It’s a scary time. Be patient in your own journey. Get a notebook and keep an accurate journal of dates, people’s names, phone numbers, what you were told.
It’s okay to not share personal details of your story when you are requesting information from anyone until you are ready to make the appropriate connections and reports.
Although I believe both children are victims, the uncomfortable truth from what I’ve seen over the years is that the “offending” child is most likely going to be viewed and labeled as an “offender” or “perpetrator” and will, unfortunately, not receive the same care or treatment options that the “offended child” (victim) will receive.
Here is a list of possible resources you may need to reach out to (again, as you do initial research, consider withholding full disclosure or details of your own case until you are prepared to report):
- Child Advocacy Centers
- Victims’ Rights Advocates
- Child Protective Services
- Law Enforcement
- Legal Counsel
- Treatment Programs (private vs. state)
Some families have found it helpful to seek legal counsel prior to reporting (which you will most likely need to do), depending on the nature of the harmful sexual behavior. My experience has been that legal professionals are only versed in the law, not treatment options, but can be helpful if you are facing potential legal action. This is an area where seeking out legal professionals who have experience specific to sexual issues would be optimal.
Legal counsel can help you navigate and interpret the laws and your family rights regarding things like:
- Regulations, policies, and rules in your state.
- Mandatory reports that need to be filed.
- Involvement of Child Protective Services.
- Juvenile services that may need to be informed.
- Whether adjudication is a possibility.
- If Probation may be required.
- Each state’s regulations regarding the Sexual Offender Registry.
To learn more about the legal aspects of harmful sexual behavior, be sure to read Part 2 of this series.
I’ve never seen a case where the issues caused by pornography or trauma are resolved on their own. They usually get buried, or most often exacerbated, if not addressed through treatment.
The very real difficulty you will face in seeking treatment is that most local treatment professionals don’t have developmental trauma training for children.
We will go into this more in a future post, but also consider interviewing any potential treatment professional to make sure the things that are part of your family foundation (faith, morals) will not be undermined.
Again, as you are doing these interviews, be circumspect with the details you share. This is fact-finding only and reporting will come in a different phase.
Some treatment options that could be available for your family are:
- Individual therapy
- Group therapy
- State run curriculum/program (every state is different)
- Private treatment programs
- Wilderness therapy
- Faith-based boarding schools
- Therapeutic boarding schools
Healing & Restoration of the Family Unit
Healing is going to take time. You are strong enough to make it through this journey and your family is worth it. Be sure to invest in your own therapy so that you can withstand the emotional strain that will surely come.
Above everything, believe: There is hope. I have seen lives restored through treatment and through the resilience of strong parents. I know with a surety that it can be that way for you too.
This is a guest post by Robin Reber, Admissions Director at Star Guides Wilderness Therapy. Feel free to contact her with questions or concerns at [email protected]
This is Part 1 in a four-part series. Find Part 2 here.
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Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers: https://www.atsa.com/
Child Justice Inc.: https://child-justice.org/
Fight the New Drug: https://fightthenewdrug.org/
International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals: https://iitap.com/
NCOSE Resources for Parents: https://endsexualexploitation.org/prevention/
Society for Advancement of Sexual Health: https://www.sash.net/
U.S. Dept. of Justice Bulletin: Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors