Introduction to the World of Child Molest Perpetrated by Juveniles
By Rick Morris, MA, LMHC, CSAYC, NCC
Response of the News and Understanding the Feelings Sexual Abuse Brings
Parents of children and teenagers who sexually abuse other children display a variety of feelings as a result of the offense. Often parents report feelings generated by their child’s sexual behavior. Normal processes of grief can explain the feelings which may vary from ambivalence to over-whelming feelings, to a numbness (Lundrigan, 2001). Throughout treatment the perpetrator will learn to express and experience his feelings appropriately however it will be just as important for the parent to learn the same.
Parent’s play a vital role in the healing and recovery of the child who has sexually abused another child. Many adults report memories of their own child abuse being triggered when they become aware they are parenting a child who has molested another child (Hunter, 2000). This is normal for the parent and should even be expected. It is common to hear parents who are dealing with their abusive child begin to talk for the first time about their own abuse history. Some acknowledge they reported it years ago while others have carried this “nasty” secret in their emotional backpack for many years. Now unexpectedly those wounds are being re-opened.
No one wants to find out that his or her child is molesting other children. Finding this out can be overwhelming. The victim may be a member of your own family or someone close to you or your family. A full range of emotions may further complicate your feelings and at times, you may feel as if your whole world has blown up around you. Your sense of strength may be replaced by insecurity, anxiety and mistrust. You should not be surprised if your emotions bounce back and forth between wanting to be angry at your child who is the perpetrator while experiencing a full range of emotions regarding the victim. The relationship of the victim to you as the parent or caregiver also creates additional emotional conflict. These are all legitimate feelings.
It is vital that you have a strong support system in order to be able to express and deal with your feelings. Child sexual abuse affects more than just the victim and the perpetrator. At this point, your children, both the perpetrator, victim, and other children in the family need your love and support now more than ever. Brothers and sisters may not have been abused; however, they may feel confused, frustrated, frightened, neglected or angry. Stay alert to their feelings, and do your best to provide them with the same love and support that you are providing for the children involved.
The emotional stress and many questions, which arise when sexual abuse is identified, cause many parents to feel isolated and confused. This is the reason some are likely to disregard the signals and messages that are being sent from your child. Many parents report initially feeling the need to deny the molest could have taken place thus inhibiting successful treatment of the perpetrator since he initially must take responsibility for the initiation of successful treatment.
Pithers et. al (Lundrigan, 2001) provides a modified view of the stages of loss. Denial is often the initial stage with thoughts such as, this could not have occurred, they are overreacting to what happened are common patterns. Parents and caregivers must honestly look at the evidence and statements made begin to believe that the behavior could have taken place and begin looking at the truth.
Once denial is addressed and the caregiver understands and agrees that inappropriate sexual contact has taken place then the caregiver often feels emotions of anger, disappointment, and embarrassment. A tendency to self-blame by the caregiver is a typical response, which must be addressed. The common goal is to identify the source of the problem that often results in During this stage the caregiver finds it helpful to deal with the anger and begin identifying the real problem and not looking for someone or something to blame.
Bargaining is the third stage observed. The caregiver may express ideals and solutions that will assist the process such as spending more time with the perpetrator, get involved in church or other social circles that will keep him busy. Caregivers often feel a need to get treatment finished and over while putting this whole situation behind them. Thus, let’s just move on, after all the more he learns about the sexual feelings and thoughts the more he will probably do it again. Watch out for the bargaining stage it can re-enforce the thinking errors the perpetrator is looking for.
Depression often sets in for the caregiver after the concepts of the sexual abuse sets in. The problem is not going to go away and there is no quick and easy way to put this behind the family. Family secrets and lack of communication is often observed in families where sexual abuse has occurred. Parents often begin to feel hopeless and alone in this journey. Care and treatment for the caregiver’s emotional needs are important early in treatment.
The final stage of reacting to grief and loss is acceptance. Obviously, this is where hope is re-established and healthier responses are observed. The caregiver begins to become an active participant of the treatment team for the sexually abusive youth. Placing blame on others and worry of embarrassment is overshadowed by the hope and renewed relationships that are being developed encourage emotional growth for the perpetrator and his family.
Everyone reacts individually to the abuse. We all react differently to similar situations. Some will react by being supportive and understanding, while others will appear to be distant, angry, or pretend that nothing has happened. Those who react negatively may simply be hurt, or unsure of how to react in the best possible way. When a parent becomes quiet and withdrawn, this reaction might be mistaken as a lack of care for the children resulting in feelings of rejection.
This is why understanding the difference between normal and healthy behaviors in comparison to abnormal and unhealthy behaviors is vital for parents, especially for parents who know they have children who either have been sexually abused or have sexually abused other children.
Why Does My Child Act Like This?
Children who have sexually abused may feel the anger, jealousy, and/or shame of other family members. Many report being afraid that their family will fall apart if they tell of the abuse. This is a heavy burden for the child to carry. Many of these children develop low self-esteem, a general feeling of worthlessness and a distorted view of sexuality (Ryan, 1999). While some of these perpetrators express high self-esteem and feel entitled to the behavior. Some children become withdrawn, lack the ability or desire to trust adults, and may become suicidal. Emotional consequences of sexual abuse include depression, anxiety attacks, fear, stigma, isolation, suicidal tendencies, lowered self-esteem, distrust, sexual dysfunction, powerlessness, and promiscuity.
Youthful perpetrators report a polarization of feelings that include confusion due to an apparent real care and concern for his victim. He may report that he would never hurt the child. This requires an understanding of why a child may sexually abuse another child that will be discussed later.
Some of the most important aspects of protecting children from further sexual victimization lie within the attitude and behaviors of the caregiver. An attitude, which suggests that sexual abuse cannot happen in your family or home, or if you believe, the abuse is the victim’s fault, or it was just an accident and will never happen again, then you are sending the message to any potential sex offender that you have let your guard down.
Think about your actions when driving your car and you have convinced yourself there are no police in the area you may be much more tempted to drive in excess of the legal speed limit. However, when you observe a “speed trap” or observe police officers you may be less likely to exceed the limit. Your children, both victim and perpetrator are precious and deserving of your protection and support. Without rules and boundaries, your perpetrator child may minimize and disregard the seriousness of the sexual abuse just as the caregiver does when driving the family car.
I have observed this attitude in many honest, loving, and caring families only to see children hurt again due to a lack of seriousness to potential re-victimization. These attitudes come out in your words when the sexual abuse is minimized.
Initially, understanding that children who have sexually abused other children often have difficulty understanding the difference between healthy touch and unhealthy touch in regard to sexual behaviors. Recalling that many children have been molested under the guise of love and trust (Chaffin, 2006). It is extremely important for children to learn that touch does not always lead to sexualized feelings. All children like and need physical affection for attachment and bonding with others, yet when physical attraction crosses the line and confuses the emotional and sexual understanding of the child it ceases to be beneficial for the child.
Some have questioned how one might teach these children healthy touch and care for one another. I believe the best approach to be where healthy respect and emotional care is modeled daily by demonstrating appropriate physical attraction and respect between parents for one another. Obviously, this does not include sexual behaviors.
There are moments and approaches that can teach a healthy understanding of physical affection. Based upon your relationship with your child and his emotional health there are times when appropriate hugs, a pat on the back, or a shoulder rub can be appropriate. It is important to stay keenly aware of the emotional responsiveness of your child.
If your child is to receive the necessary treatment to cease his sexually abusive behaviors the caregiver is the most vital component to success (ATSA, 2001). Some of the requirements for this to be successful is your child’s willingness to take responsibility for the offense, your willingness to believe that your child committed the offense and your willingness and commitment to provide strict supervision of his activities at this time. A willingness and commitment to be actively involved in your child’s treatment will only increase the prognosis for your child.
The treatment of your sexually abusive child and participation in treatment may initially add to your busy schedule and stress level. However, it is firmly believed that in order for your child to gain a healthy mastery over his thinking and behaviors, the participation and involvement of the perpetrator’s caregiver is necessary.
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). (2001). Practice standards and guidelines for members of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Beaverton,OR.
Chaffin, M. (2006, June 1). Triage decision making guidelines for adolescent sex offenders. Retrieved from http://www.ncsby.org/pages/publications/ASO%20Triage%20Decision%20Making%20Guidelines.pdf
Hunter, J. (2000). Understanding juvenile sex offenders: research findings & guidelines for effective management & treatment. Juvenile Justice Fact Sheet. Charlottsville, VA: Institute of Law, Psychiatry, & Public Policy, University of Virgina.
Lundrigan, P. (2001). Treating youth who sexually abuse: An integrated multi-component approach. New York: Haworth Press.
Ryan, G. (1999). Juvenile Sexual Offending: Causes, consequences, and correction (Rev. ed.), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.