Finding out your child has done something sexually harmful

Finding out your child has done something sexually harmful

Dr Elly Hanson, clinical psychologist and adviser to CEOP, provides some guidance and things to think about if you discover that your child has sexually harmed another.

Parents text content

What if someone says my child had done something sexually harmful?

This is likely to feel very upsetting and it can be hard at first to think straight.

  • Find space to express and make sense of your feelings about it all. You could, for example, talk to someone you trust, or go for a long walk. This will help to prevent any strong feelings, like anger or defensiveness, taking over in other places, for example, when you are with your child or with the person who made the claim. Everyone will benefit from your ability to take a calm, reflective approach.
  • As a first principle, take what is being said seriously. Have a conversation with the person who has made the claim about your child, asking as many open questions as you can to make sense of what they are saying. You may not feel such a discussion is emotionally possible immediately.
  • Explore the matter with your child. It will help you get to the truth if they know that whatever they say you will not reject them, shame them or lose control. 
  • Communicate hope – let them know that whatever they share there is a way forward.

You might never find out exactly what happened. If this is the case, it is still worth reading the advice below, because there will be things that will help if your child is at risk of harmful sexual behaviour, but won’t hurt if they’re not.

Five principles of positive sexual behaviour

Help your child understand why their behaviour was harmful by exploring these five principles. 

Shared enthusiasm – people only do things they are both enthusiastic about, without any force, persuasion or trickery involved. There are mutual positive emotions and an absence of negative ones. It is always OK to withdraw at any stage from sexual activity, and signals to this effect are responded to and respected.

Equality. It takes place in equal relationships, in which people are equally able to agree to, say no to, and withdraw from sexual activity without fear of negative consequences.

Empathy. Before, during and after, people think about, care about and respond to their own and the other person’s feelings.

Communication. People check in with one another about their feelings and preferences.

Knowledge. They have a clear awareness of who the other person is, their approach to the sexual encounter, and any risks it might involve. There isn’t any deception or withholding of relevant information.

Parents text content

What if I suspect or know my child has done something sexually harmful?

You have a vital role to play in this situation, so, seek out support and reflective time for yourself.

Don’t let big emotions like anger, shame or defensiveness get in the way of what you need to do to help your child and those they may have hurt.

Beyond discussing what happened with your child, in conversation with them also:

  • Explore what might have contributed to them behaving like this – do they have any thoughts or negative influences in their life? Approach this as team-work and balance it with mention of their responsibility, so that making sense of these influences doesn’t become about finding excuses and result in a sense that ‘it's not my fault’.
  • If necessary, expand their understanding of why their behaviour was harmful, for example by using the five principles of healthy sexual behaviour above, and discussing their view of other situations and scenarios.
  • Develop a plan together of how they will avoid acting like this again. Good plans are usually about getting rid of negative influences and avoiding high-risk situations, for instance by spending more time in positive friendships and activities. Push the conversation beyond ‘I just won’t do it again’ and focus on the detail of how they won’t.
  • Discuss how they might apologise and offer some amends. In many situations, this can massively reduce the impact of what happened, and can also help the person at fault to move on.
  • If your child is defensive or opens up very little, explore with them how worried people might be about someone who buries their head in the sand versus someone who can reflect and demonstrate change.

As well as talking to your child:

  • Talk to your child’s school about what has happened – they should help to reduce the chance of problems in the future. You may be wondering whether you should also talk to the police or social services – discussing the situation with the NSPCC or Stopitnow helplines could help you decide.
  • Do what you can to tackle any things you think might have contributed to their behaviour, for example, peer or family attitudes, pornography, gaming, stress, alcohol, loneliness, or inadequate school culture, policy or education. Don’t be afraid to limit your child’s access to pornography, gaming or alcohol but do explain to them your rationale for doing so.
  • Consider whether your child has any difficulties that something like therapy or mentoring could help with – for example, difficulties in controlling thoughts or feelings, addictive behaviour (including towards the online world), depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, or negative views on sex and gender. You may be able to find a therapist or mentor via your GP, school or social services, or through looking online or getting advice from one of the helplines mentioned.

Avoid minimising what has happened, but also avoid seeing your child only in its light. Hold on to all your know about your child, including all their positive qualities and strengths. Spend time together, be available, and support them in building a full life.