Child-on-Child Abuse: How to Recognize It and How to Respond
By Linda Gehman Peachey
Two members of the Dove’s Nest Speaker’s Bureau attended the “Child-on-Child Abuse: Recognizing, Reporting, Preventing” conference, sponsored by the law office Gibbel Kraybill & Hess, on October 5, 2017, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Linda Gehman Peachey shares her experiences here.
Linda Crockett, director of the Samaritan Safe Church Child Sexual Abuse Prevention program (www.samaritansafechurch.org), led a double workshop on “Children and Teens with Sexual Behavior Problems.” She highlighted the fact that 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by people the children know and trust; of these, 30–50 percent of perpetrators are under age 18. Crockett emphasized, however, that these youthful offenders are not mini-adults and should not be labeled predators. They engage in these behaviors for a variety of reasons and often respond well to treatment, especially if there is early intervention. They are known as children with sexual behavior problems (SBPs).
Crockett went on to stress that it is important to understand what is considered normal sexual behavior among children to be able to identify what is inappropriate, harmful, and abusive in home, school, and church settings. This can be quite uncomfortable, as many of us find it difficult to acknowledge that children are sexual beings; yet we need to be able to discuss this together if we want to avoid misperceptions and address problematic situations.
Using the traffic signal colors of green, yellow, and red, Crockett outlined behavior on a continuum, from what is considered normal behavior to problematic and abusive behaviors.
For children under 12:
- Normal or “green light” behaviors include curiosity that is limited, intermittent, and balanced with other exploration, as well as feelings that are lighthearted and spontaneous. Here caregivers can teach and affirm consent and respect for boundaries.
- Problematic or “yellow light” behaviors can include exploration that is different from the child’s peers, increases over time, and/or the child is unable to stop. There can also be efforts to bribe or coerce children who are younger or more vulnerable. At this point, it is very important that parents speak up or do something! They can talk with the child about the behavior in a calm, nonjudgmental way, and/or ask for help.
- Sexually abusive or “red light” behaviors are even more extreme and can include sexual behavior that is frequent, pervasive, and compulsive. It can also include the use of force, manipulation, and threats, as well as provocative behavior toward adults.
For teenagers (ages 13–17):
- Natural, healthy sexual behaviors include more intensified interest in sex and evolving consensual exploration, along with attention to social attitudes and religious teaching. Here it is essential for caregivers to talk about their values as well as model healthy sexual behavior.
- Problematic behaviors include being preoccupied with sexuality and using online porn. There is repeated misconduct or a major one-time event. The teen may be fixated on younger or more vulnerable children and use coercion or manipulation with them.
- Sexually abusive behavior is repeated behavior that escalates and uses violence and coercion with others. Usually, there is a significant age difference with the other child, typically more than four years.
In terms of how to respond when there is a situation of child-on-child abuse, it is important to care for the child who experienced the sexual contact and make sure they feel safe. While some children may appear to brush it off, it can be very helpful for them to process their feelings and questions with a licensed child therapist who has expertise in this area. Studies show that the impact of the trauma can be significant regardless of the age of the child’s offender.
For the child who initiated the problematic or abusive sexual contact, it is essential to have them evaluated by a child psychologist or psychiatrist who has experience working with children with SBPs. One of the goals of the assessment is to determine if the behavior is likely to be repeated and what types of intervention are needed.
If the evaluation determines that the behavior was likely a one-time event, with the child simply acting impulsively or failing to observe appropriate boundaries, then the therapist may recommend allowing the child to participate again in normal church programs. The pastor and parents can meet with the child to stress the importance of never repeating the offense, the harm it can cause to other children, and what will happen if they ever do it again.
If, on the other hand, the therapist finds that the child is likely to repeat the behavior, the therapist will need to make recommendations about if and how the child can participate in programs that involve other children.
In a congregation, for example, it may be necessary to draw up an agreement with the child and his/her parents outlining what activities the child will or will not be permitted to participate in. Parents may also need to draw up a family safety plan, which spells out clearly what the parents will do and what is expected from the child about how they will interact with their siblings and others.
Hopefully, with the right type of intervention, as well as the care and support of adult caregivers, problematic behavior can be stopped and children can learn healthy ways of interacting with others.