When young people engage in sexual abuse

If a young person you are caring for is involved in sexual behaviour with a younger child, possibly a brother or sister, or another child in the house, it will feel like the worst possible crisis. You are not alone. Other families have been in your shoes, faced the situation and come out stronger afterward. Sexual behaviour problems occur in all kinds of families and situations.[National Center on the Sexual Behaviour of Youth]

With the right help, most teens will successfully complete treatment and go on to live healthy constructive lives.

National Centre on the Sexual Behaviour of Youth

FAQ: Questions Most Commonly Asked

Most foster parents and caregivers have unanswered questions about teens who engage in sexually abusive behavior. They must sort through a lot of wrong information as they try to get a better understanding of their youth's behavior. What follows are answers to questions most commonly asked by parents, based on the best and most reliable information we have now. Teenage boys are most often the ones to engage in illegal sexual behavior.

Do these teens go on to become adult sex offenders?

Current research shows that the majority of adolescents with sexually abusive behavior do not go on to become adult sex offenders. Moreover, if a youth receives treatment, they are far less likely to reoffend. Research shows for adolescents who receive treatment rates of committing another sexual offense is low, from 3 to 14 percent.

What kinds of families do young people with illegal sexual behavior have?

All types of families. The families of young people who engage in sexually abusive behavior are as diverse as the young people themselves. The families may have biological parents, step-parents, grandparents, foster or adoptive parents, or kinship parents. The families have many different levels of income and education and they represent all ethnicities. Many of these families are functioning well and have typical family problems. Other families experience high levels of stress along with a history of problems with maltreatment, substance abuse, domestic violence, and/ or unstable employment.

What type of youth commits this behavior?

There is no 'type'. Those engaging in sexually abusive behaviour are young people:

  • with no previous delinquent behavior to boys with an extensive history of aggressive or delinquent acts;
  • with no major behavior problems at home or school to boys with significant problems at home and in school;
  • with good school performance and grades to boys with poor school performance and learning problems;
  • with no history of abuse, neglect, or serious family problems to boys with a history of abuse or neglect and highly problematic family situations;
  • with good social skills and friendships to boys with poor social skills and few or no friends;
  • with positive peer group and school activities to boys with a delinquent peer group and low involvement in school activities.

Do adolescents commit serious sex offenses?

Some do. While some teens’ abusive behavior is limited to touching a child or having a child touch them, others have extensive, aggressive sexual behavior that includes forced vaginal or anal penetration.  

Do they tell the truth about what they did?

Some immediately admit the sexually abusive behavior when questioned by their caregivers or the parents of the victim. Others admit the behavior when questioned by the police or Child Protective Services. Others admit much later, after they enter treatment. Some say they did not do anything, and they stick to that story for months. These youth often refuse to admit the truth because they are afraid of the consequences. They report that the longer they don’t tell the truth, the harder it is to tell the truth later.

Who are the victims?

Boys are most often the ones who are sexually abusive. They have sexual activity with younger children that they know and spend time with. This includes younger siblings, cousins, children of a neighbor, or children that they babysit. It is unusual for an adolescent boy to have illegal sexual behavior with a child he doesn’t know. Adolescents rarely abuse children they don’t know and they see on a playground or in a mall.

If my son abused a young boy, does that mean he’s gay?

Adolescents commit sex offenses against both young boys and girls. Because their offending frequently is opportunistic, their offenses may not reflect any gender preference, but simply opportunity.   They typically do not prefer one gender over the other. They are involved with whichever age or gender child they are around and can get to participate. If an adolescent is involved with young boys, this does not mean he’s gay or will become a gay as an adult. It typically means that he has access to a young boy and has gotten him to participate in sexual activity. It may mean that he’s more comfortable experimenting sexually with boys than with girls.

Do these adolescents commit other illegal or delinquent acts?

Yes, many do. The rate of future delinquent behavior in these teens, such as shoplifting, using illegal drugs, or possessing stolen property and even nonsexual aggression, is significantly higher than the rate of future illegal sexual behavior.   Parents need to be aware of the risk for other possible delinquent behavior with these teens and provide close supervision of their friends and activities.

Should adolescents be allowed to have a cell phone during this process?

The use of a cell phone should be decided based on whether the adolescent needs a phone, whether there are concerns that the adolescent may use the phone inappropriately or illegally, and whether alternatives exist. For example, how often is a phone necessary to check on a ride home, contact parents at work, check in with parents, caregivers, etc.? Caregivers may be concerned that the phone is used inappropriately, i.e., sending sexual messages or accessing sexual information. Monitor the use of a phone and remove it immediately if there are any concerns about how the adolescent is using it.

Were these youth sexually abused as children?

Some were; many were not. Anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of teenage boys with illegal sexual behavior report being sexually abused as children. Several studies have shown that previous physical and/or psychological abuse or neglect may also play an important role. 

The ACES research has shown that experiencing adverse childhood experiences does have long term implications. There is a saying in the ACES related research community "hurt people hurt people".

Do these youth have other psychological problems?

Some do; many do not.  A trauma and violence informed approach can help assess treatment. When seeking advice from a professional - ask them if they are knowledgeable about trauma and violence informed care.

See also: Sibling Violence on the Learning Network

Further Reading & Resources