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 stop any strong feelings, like anger or defensiveness, taking over, for example, when you are with your child or with the person who has said this. You being calm and thinking things through will help everyone.

● Take what is being said seriously. Talk to the person who has said this about your child, asking as many open questions as you can to understand. You may not feel ready to have this talk right away.

● Talk to your child. It will help you get to the truth. Let them know that whatever they say, you will not reject them, shame them or lose your temper. 

● Share hope – let them know that whatever they tell you, 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 and what positive sexual behaviour looks like, by exploring these five principles. 

  1. Shared interest. People only do things they both want to do, without any force, pressure or tricks. There are mutual positive emotions and no bad ones. It is always ok to stop at any point of sexual activity. The other person should respect this and stop.
  2. Equality. This means both people feel just as able to say yes, say no, and stop sexual activity, without fear of a negative response.
  3. Empathy. Before, during and after, each person thinks about, cares about and responds to their own and the other person’s feelings.
  4. Communication. Each person is able to share how they feel and what they do and don’t like, and is able to hear this from the other person.
  5. Knowledge. Both feel they really know who the other person is, what to expect from the sexual act, and any risks it might involve. There aren’t any lies or keeping secrets.

Parents text content

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

There’s a lot you can do to help.  Don’t forget to get support for yourself and give yourself time, so that you’re in the best place to help your child.

After talking about what happened, you can also:

Help your child think about why they behaved like this – do they have any negative beliefs or influences in their life? Look at this like team-work and be sure the child also still takes responsibility for what has happened – it isn’t about finding excuses.  

Help them to understand why their behaviour was harmful, for example by using the five principles of healthy sexual behaviour above, and discussing their thoughts on different situations.

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. 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, help them to see that ignoring is unhelpful and being honest and showing they can change is best for everyone, including them.

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.
Remember, if your child or another person is at immediate risk of harm, you should call 999.

Do what you can to manage any things you think might have added to their behaviour, for example, peer or family views, pornography, stress, alcohol, loneliness. Don’t be afraid to limit your child’s access to these things but do explain to them why.

Consider therapy or mentoring for your child. This could help with things such as difficulty in controlling thoughts or feelings, addictive behaviour (including towards the online world), depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, or harmful views on sex and gender. You can find a therapist via your child’s GP, or other support from school and social services.

It’s important to take what has happened seriously, but to also see your child as a whole, including their strengths and positives. Spend time together, be available, and support them in building a full life.