Effect on Families
A family can be devastated to learn that their teenager has been accused or charged with a sex crime. The family can feel lost in the confusion and procedures of the child protective and legal system. If the teenager is accused of sexual abuse of a sibling, the family could be faced with the possible incarceration of the juvenile sex offender and/or the removal of the child who is the alleged victim. All of this would be during an investigation in which family members would be interviewed and unsure how to handle it. Legal counsel is often involved, which is necessary, but makes things all the more complicated. Families may feel torn over whom to support in the family, if the alleged abuse was from the juvenile sex offender to a sibling. The family may become very defensive and angry toward the legal system and its representatives. On the other hand, the family members may react with extreme anger toward the juvenile with sexual behavior problems, even to the point of rejection of the teenager.
How Can the Problem Effect Relationships?
Relationships with family members and the juvenile sex offender can take different turns. Family members can be brought closer together in a defensive circle that maintains the offender did nothing wrong. Sometimes, family members are divided in loyalties, with some supporting the alleged offender and some the victim. This can make for anger, division, and stress. Family members may also be angry and even reject the teenage sex offender. Sometimes this creates long-term estrangement. Other times, it means emotional separation until the family members come around to be more supportive of the teenager getting help.
What Are the Symptoms or Problem Behaviors?
There are several behaviors that may suggest problems in this area and need further investigation by the parent or other loved one. These behaviors do not suggest sexual behavior issues in and of themselves, but in conjunction with other behaviors. One is an increase or excessive use of pornography on the part of the teenager. Another is substance abuse, especially if used in conjunction by the teenager with dating and possible sexual activity. Also, teenagers go through a normal increase in hormones in their regular development, which is expected. But a sudden or dramatic increase of private sexual activity (masturbation) may suggest the need for a closer look at what the teenager is feeling.
How Do You Know When to Seek Help?
There are several important instances in which to seek help for a teenager with sexual behavior problems. The most obvious is if the teenager is accused or actually charged with a sex crime. Another is if the teenager comes to you or another loved one and talks about struggling with trying to control sexual feelings, and you feel that you do not have the answers to their questions, or feel the need for more help. If you have suspicions about possible sexual activity between your teenager and sibling or other child, it can be time to seek professional help. Also, a sudden and large increase in the use of pornography or substance abuse (when associated with dating activity) on the part of the teenager can suggest a need to get professional help. Upon closer examination, some of these situations may not prove to be juvenile sex offending, but do bear a closer look.
Help is available for the juvenile sex offender by meeting with a professional, such as a family therapist, psychologist, social worker, or professional counselor. The preferred method of treatment is group therapy with other teenagers, which is supplemented by individual and family therapy. Recently though, treatment for the juvenile may be in the home setting, with a specialized form of therapy. This may be done in a residential setting (juvenile justice or other private residential settings); group settings complemented with individual therapy in a clinician’s office; individual therapy; or in the home with Multisystemic Therapy or Functional Family Therapy. Some states have sex offender treatment boards that offer lists of clinicians who have training in working with juvenile sex offenders. Another way to find clinicians who have training or background in sex offender treatment is to find those who are clinical members of the Association for Treatment of Sex Abuse, or use the AAMFT’s TherapistLocator.net service described on the back panel of this brochure.
Family therapists can be of great help for families who find themselves in this difficult situation. It is very important to find a licensed therapist who is qualified in the areas of family dynamics and a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. There is no singular type of family with a sexually offending teenager—there are a variety of types of teenagers and kinds of families involved.
Families have a variety of reactions to the news that their teenager has been accused of sexual crimes or misbehavior. A common reaction is to feel confused and overwhelmed by what is charged and the actions of the legal system. Another reaction of family members is for them to feel defensive of their loved one and angry that the juvenile could be accused of such a crime. This anger may be directed at law enforcement, the child protective system, or court. Or, as mentioned, the family could feel anger at the juvenile for the alleged behavior and embarrassed over what has been reported, or concerned about the impact of abuse on the sibling. Family therapists can be very helpful to family members in clarifying and understanding their feelings. Sometimes families come together for treatment on these issues in family support/education groups to learn more about sex offending and to find support and understanding with other families in a similar situation. Family therapists often lead these types of groups, helping families to give support to one another.
Family therapists are also extremely helpful to family members as they support the juvenile sex offender in their treatment. The family therapist can help the family and juvenile gain a greater understanding of attitudes and beliefs that may have contributed to the sexual acting out. The therapist can also help the family and juvenile look at inappropriate and harmful ways the juvenile has been using sexual acting out to express emotions or stress. Family therapy can help the family develop healthier ways to express and communicate feelings. Finally, as the juvenile moves through treatment and develops a relapse prevention plan/healthy life plan, the family therapist can help the family monitor and support the juvenile in implementing his or her plan for living an abuse-free life.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Families of Juvenile Sex Offenders" pamphlets to market your practice.