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Do Youth Who Harm Become Adults Who Harm?

Do children who cause sexual harm become adults who cause sexual harm?

Do treatment programs for adolescent sexual offenders really work?

How do we know which teens are at risk to continue crossing sexual boundaries?  

These are important questions for policymakers and professionals. They are questions that demand continued and carefully designed research. 


My brother molested me when we were kids.  Can I trust him to be around my children now?

It’s been a long time, but should I still report what my sister did to police so she doesn’t hurt anyone else?

Can our kids really still be together under one roof, even after he passed treatment?  


These are the same questions, in the eyes and lives of those directly affected by sibling sexual trauma.


There is a growing consensus: People who make harmful sexual choices in their youth are not doomed to continue those habits throughout their lives. Children and teens who violate sexual boundaries are not miniature versions of adult sex offenders.  


Treatment is more effective for youth than it is for adults. Young peoples’ brains are like a building under construction.  Just as it is easier to change plans before a building is finished and the framework lies behind walls, it is easier to change a teen’s sexual habits, because they are not yet as fully formed as an adult’s.


Even if they receive no treatment, there is growing evidence that most children who cause sexual harm do not continue the behavior into adulthood.  Youth and adults cross sexual boundaries for different reasons than adults.  


About half of all child sexual abuse happens at the hands of another minor, someone below the age of 18.  The peak age for anyone to engage a child in harmful sexual behavior is only fourteen. Young teens are at a stage in development that puts them at risk to make poor sexual choices. They are impulsive, driven to take risks, lacking in self-control, and have limited ability to look ahead to see the consequences of their actions. They are intensely curious about the world and about their quickly-changing bodies and desires. All of these risks will lessen as they grow and mature.  




So the long-term prognosis, on a population level, is good. But there are three critical cautions.


1) In real life, parents and professionals have to make decisions about an individual youth’s risk to continue in problematic sexual behavior. Statistics and risk analyses can be used to inform that decision, but they cannot predict what choices that child will actually make in the future. There are many other factors to consider: How serious and long-lasting was the problem behavior? Does the child face other neurological or mental health challenges? What kind of support system will be available? What other traumas or challenges is the youth facing? Even with all these in mind, the hard fact is that it is very hard for any person to predict what another person will do in the future.  


2) If the person who caused the harm is still young, they remain at risk for immature behavior–impulsive, influenced by high levels of hormones and a brain that craves instant rewards. Treatment, guidance, and practice can all point them toward healthy habits, but nothing can hasten the maturing of their brain overall.  


3) The safety and mental health of the sibling and any others who this youth may have harmed in the past needs to be top priority, even when the youth who caused the harm is found worthy of trust.  


Additional Resources Solid advice from a juvenile court judge on children with harmful sexual behavior

Dear Stop It Now! Webinar: Am I an abuser because of my sexual behaviors as a kid?

Restoring the Sacred Circle: A Toolkit for American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes for healing after problematic sexual behavior NCSBY, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences, US DOJ, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Buffalo Calf Women's Society

National Children’s Alliance: What Happens Now: Addressing Sexual Behavior Problems with Your Child

This woman is trying to stop juvenile sex offenders — by helping them - Vox

Preventing the Onset of Child Sexual Abuse by Targeting Young Adolescents With Universal Prevention Programming

Finkelhor D, Ormrod R, Chaffin M. Juveniles who commit sex offenses against minors. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; 2009. 

California Coalition Against Sexual Assault: Position Paper on Sex Offender Registration for Juvenile Offenses 

Adult Reality Check:

Think back to yourself at middle school age. What are some mistakes

you made then? 

How many of those mistakes

do you worry about repeating now?  

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