Reports of coercive sex acts among small children quite understandably provoke strong and broad ranging reactions.
The case of a child in grade one performing sex acts on other children in a Victorian primary school point to what specialised child counsellors see as an increase in the number of children with sexualised behaviours.
Sexualised behaviours may include excessive self-stimulation, sexual approaches to adults, an obsessive interest in pornography and sexual overtures to other children, including, in some cases, coercive sex acts with other children.
But a lack of data means it is difficult to know how prevalent this is.
The need for more data
Many acts go unreported, as parents or schools seek to deal with these behaviours quietly.
Where parents or teachers do reach out for assistance, they often find it difficult to locate appropriate services.
Calls to police, child protection, or the education department don’t necessarily result in a referral to the specialised services designed to counsel children with sexualised behaviours.
Although specialised counselling services don’t collect data uniformly, longitudinal data from the services themselves clearly indicate an increased demand for sexualised behaviours counselling in recent years.
This apparent increase is something that we need to reflect quite carefully on as a society.
Although the tendency is to apportion blame to individuals - the child themselves, or their parents - to do so is to miss a much larger point.
Clinical practitioners that work closely with children report that sexualised behaviours are most often part of a complex set of challenges faced by a child.
Children, by virtue of their developmental immaturity, require secure attachments with adults, and nurturing supports, to ensure that they develop the capacity to make decisions progressively for themselves.
Where children’s attachment is disrupted, due to caregiver substance abuse, or a fractious home-life, for example, the supports that children need, and deserve, are lacking.
Enhancing our understanding of the challenges that children face is important.
Recent commissions of inquiry are directing much needed attention to questions about the extent to which exposure to family violence, and exposure to online pornography impact adversely on children during their crucial early years.
We know, however, that a child’s wellbeing is not just influenced by their immediate home context. The contexts of school, and community, also have the potential to act as strong supports for a child.
Children shouldn’t be isolated
For this reason, it is crucial that when a child comes to attention for sexualised behaviours, they are not further isolated from their immediate community.
The cultures of silence and denial that surround child sexualised behaviours mean that adults often lack the information that they need to respond appropriately.
There is a risk that parents or teachers minimise such behaviours, calling it “child’s play” or “boys being boys”.
By assuming that the behaviours are not harmful means that the supports that are required for all affected children are then not provided. This creates ongoing risks for all children.
At the same time, further harm is caused by panic-driven responses that stigmatise a child as a “perpetrator” and seek to isolate or punish the child.
…or treated as criminals
In Australia, children under the age of ten cannot be held criminally responsible for their actions – and for very good reason.
Children’s developmental capacity is such that the law deems that they are incapable of forming criminal intention, and the principle of doli incapax presumes that this also applies to children between the ages of ten and 14.
A criminal justice response is therefore inappropriate in instances where young children display coercive sexualised behaviours. There is no sense in which children can be described as “perpetrators,” and to do so causes a child further harm.
Instead, when a child comes to adult attention for sexualised behaviours it is important that the adult response is calm, non-stigmatising, and focused only on ensuring the wellbeing of all children involved.
Children subjected to the behaviours require the support of their caregivers, and child-centred trauma counselling.
A sensitive response needed
Importantly, children with sexualised behaviours are equally in need of a sensitive therapeutic response to provide them with the appropriate supports to adopt respectful behaviours towards others.
In school settings it is crucial that a sensible and sensitive safety plan is implemented that prioritises the wellbeing and integration of all children, including the child with the behaviours.
Practitioners have reported instances where children with sexualised behaviours are segregated by being forced to spend lunchtime seated outside the principal’s office.
Isolating a child from their peers and treating them with disrespect is not a sensible course of action if we seek to teach a child respectful behaviours.
A punitive measure of this kind strips a child of the social interaction that we know to be a protective factor. Punishing a child in this way does nothing to address the underlying concerns that may have lead the child to display sexualised behaviours in the first place.
Children require calm and coordinated responses from parents, teachers and counsellors.
After gently intervening to create a situation of safety, the response should be informed by specialist guidelines and be sensitive to the individual circumstances and context.
Generic advice to suit all circumstances isn’t possible, given the legal and regulatory requirements in various contexts, depending on the age of children and the acts performed.
In contexts where clear response protocols are lacking, professionals working with children, including teachers, should be informed by specialist practice guidelines suitable for the context.
Measures by schools to create secrecy around these issues fail to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that child sexualised behaviours are a facet of contemporary life.
If we seek to understand why this is the case, and we wish to respond appropriately, then instead of silence and stigma we need to promote open and respectful conversations about the role that we can all play to support and nurture children while they develop the skills to negotiate the adult world.