Adolescents who engage in sexually abusive behaviour by Katie Martens

January 5, 2016

Adolescence is marked as a period of great change and growth. Throughout the maturation process, there can be seen considerable change in the physical development of the adolescent (through puberty and growth), Psychological and developmental change (greater development of consequential thinking, abstract thought, emotional regulation, sense of identity and higher level executive functions), and changes to the contextual world of the adolescent with shifting through peer groups, changing school environment, entering the workforce and differences within their role in the family unit.[1]

Similarly, as an adolescent matures, their experience and viewpoint about sex and sexuality varies considerably.

It is developmentally normal for adolescents to engage in solitary masturbation and to start developing intimate relationships with peers which may include a wide range of consensual sexual activities.

However, when adolescents engage in a significant proportion of sexually abusive behaviour there is a need for intervention and prevention.

Examples of potentially harmful or abusive sexual behaviour might be[2]:

  • Chronic and excessive masturbation particularly in inappropriate settings, in view of others or to the extent where there is interference with daily activities
  • Excessive pornography viewing, particularly those with violent themes or that depict children in a sexual manner
  • Sexual behaviour with those considerably younger than themselves or with those whom are unable to give consent due to substance intoxication or developmental delay
  • Engaging in sexual activity with animals
  • Exposing self to others
  • Touching the genitals of others without permission
  • Manipulating, threatening or forcing others to engage in unwanted sexual behaviour
  • Degradation of self or others during sexual activities

These behaviours are more often with peer aged or younger individuals and can be equally as harmful as the behaviour that adult sexual offenders engage in. It is important that this abusive sexual behaviour comes to the attention of law enforcement and child protection agencies, so that the adolescent involved are evaluated and helped. There is growing consensus that therapists and services that intervene at an early age to target sexually problematic behaviour have more success in changing this behaviour, than those who intervene with an adult population.

Looking back over the history of work with adolescents who have sexually harmed, there has been a shift from the old mindset of “boys will be boys” and more of a generalised acceptance that adolescents who have sexually harmed others need to be held accountable for their choices. Over the last few decades, considerable research and change has taken place within the field of those working with adolescents who have exhibited sexually harmful behaviour and with those looking to develop understanding into how this behaviour is developed. From the mid 1990’s onwards there has been growing awareness that adolescents who engage in these behaviours are categorically different from that of adults who choose to sexually harm.

Considering that an adolescent is in a period of great flux, whilst an adult is generally more stable in terms of personality, sexual interest and development. It is important to also recognise that adolescents are different to adults. This is both in their motivations for engaging in sexually harmful behaviour and in their treatment needs. Within the last decade, there has been a considerable shift away from treating adolescent offenders as if they are “mini adults” and a more considered effort to individualise treatment, taking into account the unique motivators for their behaviour along with the developmental and social context that the behaviour occurred within. [3][4]

Specialist services have been developed, comprising of highly trained clinicians and support staff who are able to take into account the complexities of each individual adolescent who has engaged in sexually harmful behaviour. These specialist services are conscious that manualised/one-size fits all styles of treatment are not adequate to support behaviour change within this population.

With appropriate and timely supports, the vast majority of adolescents who have exhibited sexually problematic behaviour will not go on to become adults who continue to abuse and, have the capacity to go on to develop healthy and appropriate intimate relationships.

If you are concerned about an adolescent who is engaging in sexually harmful behaviour, the following is a list of supports that can assist:

[1] Berk,L., (2004) Development Through The Lifespan (3rd Ed.). Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

[2] SECASA: Age Appropriate Sexual Behaviour In Children and Young People.

[3] Rich. P., (2011). Understanding, Assessing and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

[4] Prescott, D. (2015). Current Practice for Treating Adolescents who have Sexually Abused. Online Course hosted by NEARI Press.

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