What is harmful sexual behaviour?
Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) refer to a range of behaviours that are outside of the expected range of sexual behaviour for a child or young person’s age or level of development.
They are used in reference to children and young people up to and including the age of 17.
These behaviours may harm or risk harming the child themselves, or they may harm or risk harming other children subjected to the behaviour.
There are lots of different reasons why a child or young person may engage in harmful sexual behaviour. These include past trauma, feelings of anger and confusion, or poor impulse control. Harmful sexual behaviours can sometimes be, but are not always, the result of exposure to pornography, adult content, or sexual abuse.
Children and young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour may not always know that they are doing something inappropriate.
Seeking professional therapeutic support for children and young people who are engaging in harmful sexual behaviour is the best way to help stop the behaviour. The earlier a young person gets support, the easier it will be for them to make positive behaviour changes.
Developmentally expected sexual behaviour
Sexual development starts at birth. It includes physical changes like puberty, the attitudes and beliefs children develop about sex and sexuality and their sexual behaviour.
Sexual behaviour varies depending on children’s development, social relationships, cultural background and personal and family experiences. But it’s common for children to become more curious about bodies, relationships and sexual concepts as they develop.
The Raising Children website (www.raisingchildren.net.au) has information on sexual development by age range. Links to this information are included in the support section below.
What are some examples of harmful sexual behaviour?
Harmful sexual behaviour can range from developmentally inappropriate behaviour which harms only the child exhibiting the behaviour through to sexually abusive or violent behaviour that is directed at others.
These behaviours include, but are not limited to:
- persistent or excessive masturbation
- forcing another young person to engage in sexual behaviour, including touching, kissing or simulating sex
- a lot of sexualised play with toys
- using sexually inappropriate language
- sexual knowledge that is too advanced for their age
- attempting to expose other people’s genitals
- making sexually explicit threats
- strong interest in pornography
What are the impacts of harmful sexual behaviour on children and young people?
Harmful sexual behaviour impacts on the children who have engaged in it and the children who have been harmed by it.
Children and young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour are not the same as adult perpetrators of sexual violence. They may feel shame or embarrassment about their behaviour; they may feel confused or guilty; and they may feel angry, sad, or depressed. It is important to understand how the child or adolescent is feeling as this will help you support them. Remember it is the behaviour that is the problem, not the child or young person.
Children who have been targeted by harmful sexual behaviour may display a range of emotional and behavioural reactions, including trouble sleeping, bad dreams or bedwetting; changes in hygiene; quiet or withdrawn behaviour; anger or aggression; anxiety or depression; changes in eating habits; pain or physical discomfort; feeling spaced out.
They may feel very confused or guilty, especially if the person who targeted them was a friend or family member. They may also feel afraid or distressed about not being believed; being subject to retaliation; or breaking up their family.
All these feelings and behaviours are normal. Professional support can help the young person work through their reaction and feelings and build confidence and positive beliefs about themselves, their bodies and their sexual development.
What are the impacts of harmful sexual behaviour on parents and caregivers?
If you are the parent or carer of a child who has engaged in harmful sexual behaviour, you may experience a range of emotional reactions. These could include disbelief or denial, anger, distress, anxiety, guilt or shame, shock, fear, isolation, confusion.
Sometimes these feelings can also lead to traumatic stress reactions, such as nightmares, trouble sleeping, or a sense of numbness.
All these feelings and behaviours are normal. Professional support can help the young person work through their reaction and feelings, and build confidence and positive beliefs about themselves, their bodies and their sexual development.
Specialist therapeutic support for harmful sexual behaviours
SASS, Laurel House Sexual Assault Support Service and Mission Australia work in partnership to offer a support program in Tasmania for children aged 17 and younger who are displaying harmful sexual behaviour. The PAST program - Prevention, Assessment, Support and Treatment - operates state-wide.
The program supports the child or young person themselves; the family of the child, including parents/carers and siblings, other people that live with the child and other significant people in the child or young person’s life; and any other children or young people who have been impacted by the harmful behaviour.
For more information contact SASS or Laurel House.
Where to get more information?
There is some information on the Raising Children website (www.raisingchildren.net.au) about sexual development by age range, which may be useful:
Childhood sexual development & behaviour from 0 to 3
Childhood sexual development & behaviour from 4 to 6
Childhood sexual development & behaviour from 7 to 9
Pre-teens puberty & sexual development
Teens puberty & sexual development