No one wants to hear that their child is misbehaving at school, on the sports team or in the neighborhood. A call home from teacher, principal, or coach can make good parents cringe. They feel ashamed of their child as well as concerned for him or her. However, one of the hardest things to hear is a report that one’s child has committed a sexual misdeed. In such cases, parents feel not only shame and embarrassment, but also panic and horror. What kind of monster have they raised?
What are parents to do when they find out that their child has forced sexual attention on a peer?
Hearing from the school principal — or worse, the police — that your child committed sexual harassment is difficult. You might be tempted to give in to your emotions and lash out at your child — don’t! Instead, take the time to calm down so that you can approach the situation rationally. The issue is too important to treat with drama or hysteria.
Take the Behavior Seriously
Parents of kids who sexually harass others may deliberately or unconsciously water down the gravity of the issue. They might say that their child is just being flirtatious, or is responding to mixed messages from the victim. If you’re a parent sincerely interested in helping your child, do not give in to this temptation. Whether your child was deliberate in forcing sexual attention on a peer, or your child is honestly unaware that what he or she did is wrong, this is one behavior you want to nip in the bud. Studies show that adult sexual offenders begin through inappropriate sexual behavior as teenagers or young children. Shrugging things off today may prove to be costly in the future.
Assess How Much Help Your Child Needs
Each case of sexual harassment is different and must be approached differently. Some cases are more serious than others and will require professional intervention. Other cases can be addressed by parent education, sensitivity training and logical consequences. It’s important that parents assess the problem correctly so that they can make the most appropriate intervention. Enlisting the help of objective professionals is highly recommended. For instance, a child psychologist is in an excellent position to determine whether the child’s behavior reflects serious mental health issues or more benign inappropriate actions.
What are the things parents and professionals should consider?
First, ask: is this a first offense or is this behavior been going on for some time now? If it’s the latter then you don’t just have a one time incident to deal with but a pattern of misbehavior to address. You may need extra support and professional intervention to help your child towards positive change.
Second, assess: did your child deliberately force sexual attention on his or her friend or classmate, or is your child honestly confused regarding the gravity of his or her actions? If it’s the first case, the situation is more serious, as there is an actual choice to do something that is clearly wrong and harmful. You might be dealing with a conduct disorder or other mental health disorder. If, however, the child is honestly confused regarding the gravity of his or her actions, it’s possible that your child is merely poorly socialized, and has no idea how to behave appropriately in the presence of people he or she finds sexually attractive. In fact, the child may just be modeling negative role models, like swashbuckling TV characters who get away with the kind of behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated in real life.
Lastly, consider your child’s age. To what degree does he or she have an understanding of sex and sexuality? The younger kids are, the less likely it is that their misbehavior was malicious in nature. In addition, it is more likely that they would be confused as to when an action is wanted or unwanted. Older children and teenagers, however, must be charged with greater accountability for their actions, as they are expected to be aware of the impact of their behavior on their victim.
Provide the Help Needed
As mentioned, the intervention must fit the gravity of the problem. If the situation is not alarming – that is, a parent is dealing with a first offense, done without awareness of the wrongness of the deed, by a child too young to understand what sexual harassment is – then parents can deal with the situation at home using education, guidance and a system of consequences. For increasing gravity, increasing degrees of professional help must be solicited.
Education is the lightest intervention. Teach your child that what he or she did is wrong, and why exactly it is wrong. Emphasize that it’s a behavior that you don’t ever want to see repeated again. Sensitivity training can follow; teach your child to understand a peer’s point of view and why ta victim would find unwanted sexual advances not just offensive but traumatic. Contract for logical consequences; make sure your child apologizes to his or her victim and/or victim’s parents. If victims press charges, it is possible that the child may also be made to undergo counseling and therapy, or put in community service. Sadly, a child may also have to go through juvenile court as consequence of his or her behavior.
For serious cases, professional treatment is required. You may also want to consult the local social welfare office for resources on how to help juvenile sexual offenders. There are also non-governmental institutions that assist sexual offenders. Treatment options can range from out-patient weekly therapy session to residential placement and treatment.