Q&A with the Trainer: Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Working with young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour is complex and challenging.

Cyra Fernandes and Dan Howell have spent over a 1000 hours in the past year helping carers and professionals working in out-of-home care better respond to young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviours.

Harmful Sexual Behaviour is an umbrella term to describe children or young people who engage in behaviour that is sexual in nature but is developmentally outside of their age range. The behaviour can be targeted towards another child or to self-such as excessive masturbation. Harmful sexual behaviour can involve the use of force and coercion, and the impact on the victim child can be as serious and long term as abuse from an adult to a child.

A month out from their next workshop: Empowering young people’s sexuality: an attachment-based understanding of harmful sexual behaviours in out-of-home care, I caught up with Dan and Cyra to find out what keeps them going and grounded in this space steeped in guilt, shame and stigma.


How do you describe your work for others?

Cyra:  We have been doing this work for a long time, and it is all about helping children, young people and families where there has been harmful sexual behaviour.

Dan: So, our work has included everything from direct therapeutic intervention with children, young people and their families and secondary consultation with out of home care providers to delivery of training to carers and clinicians and presentations at conferences and writing of articles and blogs.


What is one question you always get asked about harmful sexual behaviours?

Cyra: This is not so much a question as a frequent comment. People have often said, “I never realised that children or young people would do something sexual to another child”.

There is often a view about childhood where children and young people are seen as pure and innocent. So when children and young people engage in harmful sexual behaviour, their behaviour is either minimised, “no big deal … boys being boys”, or they are monsters.

Dan: This polarisation of children as either pure and innocent or evil and monstrous stops them from getting help to address their behaviours.


What are the most common fears or anxieties you hear from carers and workers supporting young people who have sexually harmed other children or young people?

Dan: The most common fear or anxiety is that this child or young person will grow up and be a paedophile, and other children and the community are at risk of being abused. Many years of research has found that this is not the case. With the proper support, the chance that children and young people will continue to engage in the behaviour is considerably reduced.


What is one thing you wish everyone knew about young people who may have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour?

Cyra & Dan: We wish everyone knew that the risk level for children and young people engaging in harmful sexual behaviour is low, particularly if they receive help and support. Therefore, it is essential to seek help for children and young people as early as possible before the behaviour becomes entrenched.


How do you look after yourself when doing this work?

Cyra: Having the support of colleagues and good supervision is really important to help maintain perspective on the work.

Dan: Yes, and being a specialised area of work, having the listening ear and sounding board of each other has helped.

Reading relevant articles and attending training is also helpful.


What keeps you going and grounded in this space?

Dan: We have often seen children and young people and families come in feeling intense shame and a sense of hopelessness about the situation. However, with help and support, we have seen them lead healthy and productive lives in the community.

Cyra: Knowing in a small way that we have contributed to helping children, young people, and their families heal from this trauma fuels our passion and hope in continuing in this work.


Register now for Dan and Cyra’s upcoming workshop:  Empowering young people’s sexuality: an attachment-based understanding of harmful sexual behaviours in out-of-home care