Child referrals for sexual behaviour have ‘sky-rocketed’ – expert

Child welfare consultant Kieran McGrath warns issue ‘cannot be ignored’

Referrals of children for inappropriate sexual behaviour have “sky-rocketed” in recent years, a leading child welfare expert has warned.

Child welfare consultant Kieran McGrath was speaking ahead of the publication on Thursday of his book on the issue, Understanding and Managing Sexualised Behaviour in Children and Adolescents.

The book, to be launched by Pat Rabbitte, newly appointed chair of Tusla, is aimed at parents, carers, teacher, childcare workers or anyone concerned about sexual behaviour in a child or adolescent.

Neither Tusla nor the Children At Risk in Ireland (CARI) organisation could provide figures for how many children have been referred for inappropriate sexual behaviour, though CARI has been warning of dramatic increases in its annual reports for a number of years.

Sexualised behaviour among under 18-year-olds is becoming more complex with the proliferation of smartphones and children’s access to social media. These phones are used by and against young people and children, says Mr McGrath.

“Few parents are aware their children are, quite literally, carrying a type of weapon around in their pockets or school bags that can do them, and others, a great deal of harm. Smartphones can be used to ensnare children in behaviours that can damage them for the rest of their lives,” said Mr McGrath.

Extreme pornography

Young males especially were being exposed to widespread pornography that bore no resemblance to the straightforwardly sexual pornography of the past, he said. It consisted now of extreme, explicit, violent and degrading material which was “damaging the developing brains of young males in a way that causes them to be more narcissistic and uncaring of others”.

While in the recent past children behaving inappropriately sexually was taken to indicate the child had experienced sexual abuse, increasingly experts say it may instead indicate the child is experiencing other emotional problems.

A growing number have been exposed to pornography that “adversely affected their behaviour” and some were exposed to inappropriate adult sexual behaviour which, even if they heard or witnessed it accidentally, had a very negative impact on them.

“Either way it cannot be ignored,” writes Mr McGrath, as to do so could result in “very serious fallout for all concerned”.

He stresses however the necessity of recognising what is appropriate, normal sexual behaviour for children and adolescents, what is problematic and what is abusive, and of knowing how to address it.

“I have seen children emotionally crushed through insensitive handling of minor cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour. On the other hand, for far too long, behaviour of this kind was ignored and allowed to grow into something much more problematic.”

The booklet looks at normal sexual curiosity – such as flirting, kissing, “show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine”, and “playing doctor” between under 12s – and forced touching of genitals and simulating intercourse with peers without clothing, at the other end of the spectrum.

Similarly for 13- to 18-year-olds, while masturbation, kissing, foreplay and sexual intercourse in a long-term relationship are healthy, interest in sexually aggressive porn, degrading others sexually, rape and bestiality are among the most problematic behaviours.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times