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Working safely with families/whānau where children are displaying concerning sexual behaviour

Updated: 22 September 2013

What's Important To Us

Working with children and families where a child is displaying concerning sexual behaviour is a complex area of our work that is often fraught with high running emotions within the family/whānau and community. It is important that we respond appropriately to children and that we support families/whānau to manage children's behaviour safely.

Concerning sexual behaviour evokes a response of discomfort and awkwardness in many adults. While some adults consider such behaviour playful, others fear it indicates a path towards more harmful sexual behaviour. It is important to not under or over react when a child displays concerning sexual behaviour.

The following key information refers to children displaying concerning sexual behaviour as those aged 10 years and under.

This is a guide only, and social worker judgement is required when considering if this information is appropriate for an older child, or whether referring to Working safely with young people who are displaying harmful sexual behaviour would be more appropriate.

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Understanding children's thinking and experiences

Adults tend to focus on concerning sexual behaviours in terms of their own adult understanding of sexuality. This is far from the understanding of children who usually have an attitude of exploration and discovery and none of the fantasies and intentions that accompany adult sexual experiences.

Children who behave in a concerning way towards other children often have little concept of the negative impact their behaviour may have on the other child. Children need to be assisted and supported to understand the impact of their behaviour on others and the thoughts and feelings they had leading up to the behaviour. By helping children to understand these things they can then be assisted to develop alternative, safe responses to their thoughts and feelings.

What is okay and not okay behaviour?

Children's sexual behaviour should be viewed along a continuum. The behaviour may be normal and healthy or it may raise some concerns about abuse or that the child's level of awareness is not age or developmentally appropriate.

Sexual development is influenced by family/whānau, social experiences, peer group, culture, biological factors and sexual experiences. Factors such as curiosity, puberty, peer contact, experimentation and acting out or showing off need to be considered when determining what is okay for a child's age and development.

Consideration needs to be given to whether the behaviour is an isolated incident or a continued pattern of behaviour, and whether the behaviour is part of a wider range of concerns for the child's safety and wellbeing.

Examples of behaviour not normally of concern:

  • age appropriate exploration of bodies with similar aged children (e.g. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours")
  • playing doctor or playing ‘mummies and daddies’
  • play that is accompanied by giggling and excitement rather than shame and fear
  • drawing genitals on human figures
  • asking questions about body's pregnancy and sexual difference
  • curiosity about nudity and touching of other children
  • kissing familiar adults and children
  • touching own genital area or rubbing against objects
  • interest in sex words, slang, dirty jokes, sexual media and swearing
  • children of similar age, development and size engaging in the behaviour together
  • interest in animals’ reproduction.

These behaviours should be addressed using general behaviour management strategies, good role modeling and the setting of boundaries about what is okay and not okay behaviour in different settings.

Examples of behaviour that may be of concern:

  • an apparent preoccupation or obsession with sexual behaviour that the child cannot stop even when asked
  • behaviour out of balance with the peer group
  • preoccupation with touching other children's genitals even when told not to
  • wanting to compare genitals with much older or much younger children or adults
  • attempts to engage in oral, anal or vaginal sex
  • inserting objects in own or others genital/rectum
  • touching animals’ genitals
  • persistent and public masturbation
  • excessive interest in or preoccupation with sexual media
  • any behaviour that involved force, coercion, aggression or sneakiness
  • behaviour where there is a marked difference in age, intellectual functioning, emotional development, power/authority and size difference.

When assessing these behaviours it is important to consider if the child has been sexually abused or exposed to poor boundaries around sexual behaviour by adults in the home or exposed to explicit sexual media.

If you believe a child is behaving in a way that is concerning to others then this needs to be recorded in the child’s Tuituia assessment (and subsequent Tuituia report) and a person characteristic established.

Once this behaviour has been identified, work with the child, their family/whānau and others to build safety around the child. This is a complex area of practice and consultation with a treatment provider with expertise in this area will be important and should occur within seven days of identifying the concerning behaviour.

Working with the parent/caregiver

The child's parent(s)/caregiver will play a key role in providing information about the child's experiences and support to the child should they require further intervention, and implementing boundaries to a child to bring about behaviour change. You need to consider:

  • Parent/caregiver capacity: Consider the willingness, ability and motivation of the parent/caregiver to provide support to the child, and if the parent/caregiver has the necessary parenting skills to manage the child's behaviour, provide safe supervision and implement boundaries for the child that will support them to change the behaviour. What supports will be needed to help parents gain these skills if required?
  • Parent/caregiver attitude about the behaviour: The adult’s own attitude to sexual behaviour, understanding of age appropriate sexual behaviour and life experiences will influence the amount of support and intervention that is needed for each family/whānau. An emphasis needs to be placed on not blaming the child for their behaviour.
  • Support systems: Consider how the child's behaviour may have impacted on the family/whānau support systems. If a child's behaviour has impacted negatively on other children in the wider family or community the child and parent/caregiver may feel ostracised from usual support systems or too embarrassed to access their usual supports.
  • Wider care and protection concerns: Environmental factors can encourage ongoing concerning sexual behaviour. The literature recognises physical violence as a frequent factor within the lives of children who go on to display concerning sexual behaviour. This is in addition to high levels of family violence, verbal abuse, parental arrest and lack of parental supervision.
  • Building safety around the child: The parent/caregiver needs to be assisted to identify and implement clear boundaries for the family/whānau that will assist the child to change their behaviour and limit the opportunities for the behaviour to continue. It may initially be a realistic goal to reduce the behaviour with clear boundaries and behaviour management strategies rather than expect an immediate cessation of the behaviour.

Building safety around children and young people

Working with the early childhood centre/school

Concerning sexual behaviour within the school setting can bring about high levels of anxiety and reaction from schools. If necessary assist the school to understand what age appropriate behaviour is, and keep the school informed about what interventions may be occurring to support the child to modify their behaviour so this can be continued at school.

The school should seek assistance from their own resource and support systems within the Ministry of Education. There is a danger that the early childhood centre/school may react by wanting to have the child removed.

It is important that this be avoided in all but the most extreme cases and that it does not occur without consultation with the Ministry of Education and community based treatment providers. There are almost always safety measures that can be put in place that ensure a child can continue to attend school safely.

It is vital that you advocate for the child and support the parent/caregiver to advocate for the child.

Concerning behaviour between siblings 

Concerning sexual behaviour between siblings can be difficult for parents to manage as they struggle to implement behaviour management strategies, protect younger children from their older sibling’s behaviour and manage day-to-day family life.

Parents and caregivers should be assisted to establish clear boundaries within the home that reduce the opportunity for the behaviour to be repeated, intervene when there are power tactics occurring (bullying) and provide an environment where there is open communication and sharing of feelings amongst family/whānau members.

Care needs to be taken so that blame is not placed on the child, and that the focus for the family/whānau is on supporting change and limiting harm.

When assisting the family/whānau to build safety, consider the factors set out above in the section ('Working with the parent(s)/caregiver'), and also consider the following additional factors:

  • children with concerning sexual behaviour should not share a room with another child, especially a younger sibling
  • responsibility for the care of another child, such as babysitting, toileting or changing nappies should not be placed on a child with concerning sexual behaviour
  • play, especially with younger siblings, must be closely monitored
  • clear boundaries need to be established about private spaces such as the bathroom and bedrooms.

Assessment and treatment

If a child displays concerning sexual behaviour it is vital that the child and the family/whānau receive early support and intervention to bring about change in the behaviour.

The aim of treatment is to assist the child and their family/whānau to gain understanding, knowledge and the relevant skills to prevent further sexually concerning behaviour from occurring. This is facilitated through a robust assessment, individual therapy, group work (if appropriate), and family therapy.

Programme providers:

STOP in Christchurch and Dunedin (school-aged children)

SAFE Network in Auckland (10-12 year olds)

WellSTOP in Wellington (youth program starts at 11 years)

Due to the variation between regions of the services provided contact your local provider for advice about the most appropriate intervention available in your area.