Language is so important in all the work that we do. It is particularly pertinent when referring to children and young people who have exhibited sexually reactive behaviours. This was one of the key messages amongst many delivered by Toni Cash, Manager, Practice Advice and Support, Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women, when she presented her workshop at the recent PeakCare Forum on Tuesday, 9th October.
What was once the Sexual Abuse Counselling Service (SACS) is now a capacity building team with the Department of Child Safety as the major client. Their secondary client is non-government organisations working with children and young people in out of home care.
An equally important message Toni imparted was the importance of seeing the sexually reactive behaviours of children and young people along the continuum of trauma-based behaviours. “We sometimes forget this when we’re confronted by such behaviours” noted Toni. Knowing the facts and being aware of the myths was another reminder alongside the relevance of checking in with ourselves regularly through professional supervision and other relevant means to genuinely check our values, beliefs and assumptions about children and young people with sexually reactive behaviours to ensure our work, in particular our advocacy, is sound. “The work is often value based. I encourage you all to talk about this in your teams and through professional supervision. How we think and feel about such issues, our values, and our perspectives impact how we work with this cohort of children and young people” said Toni. She also noted that her team have exercises available for teams to assist in exploring values.
The workshop unpacked these issues amongst many to assist practitioners and managers in supporting clients and staff who work with these issues daily; including those in residential care, those in schools, those caring for children and young people in foster and kinship care, juvenile justice workers and anyone who advocates for and works alongside children and young people who have experienced trauma. Whilst the workshop was specifically geared towards work with children and young people with a care experience, many of the messages are universal and applicable to all children and young people who exhibit such behaviours.
Toni noted that when sharing this information in groups and training processes, it is important to be cognisant that given the statistics that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys experience sexual abuse before the age of 18, it is highly probable that some staff engaging with this training have a lived experience. In acknowledging that it is important to let those in attendance know what assistance is available if they require it. It is equally important during these information sessions to be mindful of how we speak about our professional partners and stakeholders, children, young people and families. Whilst raising frustrations is absolutely appropriate doing so in a respectful way is necessary.
How we use language has the potential to help or hinder. With regard to sexual abuse, some regularly used language in our society in general isn’t helpful. The term paedophile is over used and doesn’t apply to many sexual offenders. Grooming is a term that is used but isn’t appropriate or relevant when talking about children and young people with sexually reactive behaviours. Terms such as sexual offender in the making are totally inappropriate and unhelpful.
Toni noted that sexual abuse is a gendered issue in that it predominantly enacted by men and boys. When speaking about the issue, person first language is important. A person who has been convicted of a sexual offence is a more appropriate term than sexual offender. Whilst the preferred option is longer it is more accurate in that it acknowledges that the person is more than an offence. This is particularly pertinent for children and young people who can be harshly stigmatised and labelled in their formative years. Similarly, Toni recommends that terms such as victim and survivor be swapped with a person who has experienced sexual abuse.
Knowing the facts:
Toni clearly articulated that sexual abuse of others is not necessarily an indication that the child or young person themselves was sexually abused or that there is an underlying pathology. Usually there is an underlying trauma. “We can safely assume it’s trauma. Even if down the track a pathology is noted, there will be no harm done by responding in a trauma informed way.” Toni also noted that preferential offenders are highly unlikely in this cohort of young people. She also acknowledged that in the general population thinking about pathology a little earlier is probably wise, but a trauma informed approach still won’t do any harm. Sexual abuse of others is a common trauma behaviour. Recidivism rates of children and young people are extremely low. Approximately 7-9% of children and young people reoffend. Therapeutic support and interventions assist in further lowering rates of reoffending to approximately 5%.
Given these facts, how we work with children and young people with sexually reactive behaviours is essential to their trauma recovery, inclusion and long-term wellbeing. It is also paramount in enhancing safety.
Tips for engagement:
Be aware when working with children and young people how you perceive sexually reactive behaviours and how you’re feeling. What are your true values? Be mindful of your values then touch base through professional supervision or similar avenues for support.
It is really important to think about what’s normal and what’s legal because what’s legal isn’t necessarily safe or appropriate and as such a legal approach isn’t always the answer. We need to dig deeper in our analysis and the questions we’re asking. It is certainly good to know the legalities but weighing up legal factors with safety and wellbeing factors is important.
Be consistent with language and use anatomically correct terminology. If you’re uncomfortable doing so children and young people will sense your discomfort and shut down.
Information needs to be offered more than once as children and young people coping with trauma often need to hear messages repetitively to process.
What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual development?
There are several readily available resources to assist staff in their work. True relationships and reproductive health have developed many resources including the traffic lights resource and the book: Is this Normal? Toni outlined the behaviours noted in each of the green, orange and red traffic lights that simply guide workers and carers in identifying appropriate developmental behaviours from those that indicate support and safety is needed. There are also exercises available to assist in further understanding green light behaviours. Toni noted that many are surprised by behaviours that fall within healthy sexual development and as such knowing what they are is of significant assistance to all who care for children and young people.
In further exploring the needs of children and young people who exhibit sexually reactive behaviours, Toni noted the departmentally developed sexual development wall. It highlights what is expected from children and young people at each developmental age category and then demonstrates the cracks in the wall resultant from trauma. The developmental wall has had great feedback from carers. The impact of abuse and neglect on healthy sexual development is significant. This wall allows for a visual representation of the major issues experienced. For example, for children who’ve witnessed their father rape their mother and high levels of domestic violence, their role modelling is cracked, and the damage is evident. Furthermore, children with missed schooling due to being moved to another home environment or school suspensions and exclusions often miss out on vital sexual health lessons delivered in school.
When concerns are noted, safety planning is key. These plans need to be individualised. Cutting and pasting will not work. Every child and young person is different and there are rarely patterns of behaviour. “We need to look at the need behind the behaviour. All plans need to be regularly updated and the level of supervision assessed” said Toni. The aim is safety for all children and young people involved in concerns. Safety plans help considerably in preventing recidivism. “Safety plans can be therapeutic without being led by therapists. In acknowledging that the starting point requires a high level of external regulation, the aim is to build internal regulation as we work out causal factors, therapeutic needs and the various issues at play.” Toni further highlighted that schools are excellent at teaching internal and external regulation and do so daily with each child in the education system.
Young people are pragmatic and practical, so the use of maps of the house or school can be helpful as part of the safety plan – where supervision is needed and why. Safety plans are not a form of isolation. It is essential that they don’t become so. Being clear and transparent about the exact behaviours that are being addressed is essential. “Highlight that the aim is to protect harm to other children and further accusations levelled against the child or young person when developing the safety plan”. In doing so, any debates about guilt or innocence are averted and the focus is on safety for all. The plan whilst being flexible and responsive to young people as their internal regulation increases, also need to be in step with the young person’s real life. It is important to ensure it isn’t developmentally harmful or inappropriate.
At the heart of any safety plan is ensuring that the young person’s safety and support network of family members, carers, professionals, school staff, friends and community members are all working together to keep the young person safe. This includes keeping them safe from sexually abusing others. Common language between key safety and support network members and clearly delineated roles and responsibilities of all are needed to enhance positive outcomes for the child or young people involved in safety planning.
Ultimately what children and young people need are open, respectful and accurate conversations about healthy sexuality and relationships that include positive sexual and relational messages that will promote ongoing safety and wellbeing.
View all factsheets and free resources on the True – Relationships & Reproductive Health website.
For more information contact Practice Advice and Support – Intake line: 3008 5134 or Intake email: PAS@communities.qld.gov.au