Responding to Problematic Behaviours

How you respond to problematic sexualised behaviours will depend on the behaviour. Most important is that you do respond, never just ignore a behaviour that gives concern. The sooner something is done, the soon the behaviour can be stopped and the young person can feel more positive, safe and included.

If you feel it is out of your ability to address it then look to involve other professionals or people involved in the young person life.

‘Is It Normal?’ is a really good guide on how to respond to various behaviours.

There are things that are important to consider when you come across a young person engaging in concerning or harmful sexualised behaviours and things to consider on an ongoing basis for this group of young people.

Immediate responses:

  • First thing to do if you see the child acting out sexually, calmly interrupt it
  • Let the child know that their behaviour is not appropriate and tell them why. e.g. Telling the child gently but firmly that it is not ok for them to touch their friends private parts, and explain that this may be making their friend feel bad
  • Don’t make the young person feel shameful about their behaviours - negative comments such as “that is disgusting or “don’t be dirty” are not helpful
  • Help the young person understand why they are acting out sexually
  • Ask them questions such as “What made you do that, how were you feeling when you did that”
  • Continue supervision
  • Seek any medical attention that may be required
  • Report to any authorities if required

How you respond to problematic sexualised behaviours will depend on the behaviour. Most important is that you do respond, never just ignore a behaviour that gives concern.

Ongoing Considerations

  • Help the young person identify warning signs for when they are about to sexually act out, e.g. – do they start to feel scared or unsafe, angry, sad?
  • Times of change or distress may also trigger such behaviours – at such times increase support and supervision
  • Help the young person to feel safe that he or she can tell you about what occurred. Let them know that you want to hear when he or she is having sexual thoughts so you can help them change their behaviours
Continue supervision
  • If the young person repeats a behaviour, let him/her know it is not okay and that you still want to work together to stop it from happening again. When this happens you may remind them of the ‘rules’ around privacy, such as, it is okay to touch yourself as long as this occurs on your own in the privacy of your bedroom or bathroom but it is not okay to do this with other people or to other people and not okay to do so in public.
  • Remember that the young person may slip into the old behaviour and that it is hard behaviour to interrupt because it “feels good” for them.
  • Be clear about confidentiality
  • Support healthy relationships and friendships
  • Keep the conversations happening
  • Provide ongoing developmentally appropriate education
  • Seek support if feel it is appropriate and you feel out of your comfort zone
Remember it is the behaviour that is the problem not the young person.

Develop boundaries

  • That are clear, simple and understood by the young person
  • In a nurturing way rather than punitive manner – being punitive will often alienate the young person and mean they won’t discuss these feelings with you or let you know if the behavior is continuing
  • That are consistent

Case Example

Amy is 10 years old and lives in foster care.

She often stay up late watching TV because she prefers to sleep in the lounge room.

Sometimes Amy stays awake when her carer has visitors. Amy’s carer has noticed that Amy often tries to sit on the lap of the adult male friend who visit. When she does this, she tells them they look nice and tries to touch them and kiss them on the lips. Sometimes Amy also like to dance for them and says she is being a pop star. When Amy’s carer tell her to leave them alone, Amy laughs and say she is just having fun.

This behaviour is concerning because:

  • Amy is flirting in order to interact with adults
  • It shows Amy is confused about personal boundaries and age appropriate touch
  • It is with adults and they are not equals in age, size or power
  • Amy continues the behaviour after being told to stop


  • Identify the problem behavior and help Amy understand why it is not appropriate – express why you may be concerned for her.
  • Inform yourself – if you are aware of a history of abuse for instance, it might be useful to understand that often young people will mimic their experiences such as ‘grooming’ in trying to negotiate boundaries **
  • Explore the reason why Amy is doing these things, how it makes her feel
  • Discuss some boundaries – for both Amy and explaining that other also have personal boundaries
  • Explore feelings, environments, times when Amy engages in these behaviours
  • Supervise her during times when the behaviour occurs Be open and honest with your communication about these behaviours

** In some instances when a young person has experience sexual abuse, there is an extensive grooming process where the trust of a young person is gained and inappropriate behaviours are normalised or exposure to inappropriate sexual material happens over time. A lot of the times young people can mimic these learnt behaviours and hence testing others boundaries.

Further Resources