24 May 2023

Sexual abuse of children and young people causes great distress to the victim, increases the risk of developing mental health and psychosocial problems, and affects the immediate environment, family and friends. Children can be abused by adults but also by other children and young people.

Portrait Poa Samuelberg
PoaSamuelberg at a digital training day on children and young people with sexualbehaviour problems. Photo: Sofia Lindgren.


Heterogeneous group with a wide range of ages

Children and young people with sexually harmful or problematic behaviour are a heterogeneous group with a wide range of ages and developmental levels. What they have in common is harmful and/or problematic sexual behaviour that is destructive to themselves and/or harmful to others. Research shows that 35-65% of all sexual assaults are committed by people under the age of 18. 

 In a study in the United States with 13,000 participants, about 75 per cent of boys and 70 per cent of girls aged 0-17 (parents responded for children under the age of 9) of those who reported being victimised said they had been sexually abused by another young person. 

Few young people come to the attention of the authorities

In statistics and research in Sweden, only crimes reported to the police that are committed by people aged 15 and over are reported, which means that there is no knowledge of how many sexual offences are committed by young people before the age of criminal responsibility.

In a Nordic study of 18-year-olds, 5 per cent of boys and 1 per cent of girls reported that they had forced someone to engage in penetrative sex or masturbation. This can be compared with a Swedish study in 2002 where the social services reported that 0.06 per cent of boys in Sweden aged 12-17 had been reported for sexual abuse and were the subject of an investigation by the social services. Few young people with sexual behaviour problems come to the attention of the authorities. 

A Swedish survey of nearly 3,300 upper secondary school pupils on young people's sexuality and exposure to sexual abuse shows that one in four pupils has been subjected to some form of sexual abuse at some point during their childhood. The last time the survey was conducted in 2014, it was one in five. In the follow-up survey, 35 per cent of those who had been assaulted said that the person responsible for the first assault was a peer they knew and 19 per cent a boyfriend/girlfriend.

Associated with shame and guilt

Acting out sexual behaviour in children and young people risks becoming an issue that professionals and authorities bounce between each other in the absence of knowledge and guidance. Less serious sexual behaviour problems tend to be downplayed by the perpetrator, the victim and the community, as sexual abuse is associated with strong feelings of shame and guilt.

- When abuse is revealed within a family and in sibling relationships, difficult processes often arise with conflicts of loyalty and difficulties in communicating. The risk of overlooking the need for protection and support is great for both the victim and the perpetrator, says Anette Birgersson, project worker and investigator at Barnafrid. 

Her experience of training and supervising professionals in social services and child and adolescent psychiatry in relation to the target group reveals major gaps in knowledge, but also a lack of organisational support. All types of sexual acts, including on the internet, with children under the age of 15 are a criminal offence, regardless of the child's own will and any invitations. Through a structured approach and knowledge, we can help to break the negative development of children and young people who engage in sexual behaviour.

Digital training for professionals

Later this year, a web-based training on children and young people with sexual behaviour problems will be launched for professionals in health care, social services, schools, the police and other actors in the legal system. The training, which will be available free of charge on the Barnafrid knowledge portal, aims to provide knowledge, skills and process support to understand and respond to sexual behaviour problems in children and young people. 

The course describes evidence-based methods and recommended ways of working to manage and cooperate within and between authorities to reduce the risk of new incidents and to strengthen protection. It also provides knowledge on identifying and assessing sexual behavioural problems in children and young people and providing appropriate support and treatment. The course teaches the principles and skills for responding to and supporting children, young people and their carers after disclosure of sexual behaviour problems, the process of raising concerns and reporting to the police, and how social services and the police investigate criminal acts. The course also provides knowledge on how schools and student services can act to manage the protection and safety of all students.

 - Professionals who meet children and young people with sexual behaviour problems need training and knowledge to be able to make individual assessments and match interventions aimed at preventing future sexual abuse, says Poa Samuelberg.

Great interest in the programme

Interest in the upcoming online training programme is high, indicating a need for broad knowledge in the field. The training day in February on the same theme was attended by around 1000 people. 

Barnafrid has previously developed other free web courses within the framework of the government's assignment on competence-enhancing measures for professionals; Basic programme on violence against children and Child psychiatric trauma care.

- With the upcoming training programme, the hope is to further increase access to equivalent and improved knowledge among all professionals who meet children and young people exposed to violence. Digital training programmes have made it possible to scale up knowledge enhancement initiatives at a lower cost. An inter-agency knowledge base for multi-professional teams can hopefully improve communication and collaboration across agency boundaries. Together we can work to increase protection and support for children and young people who have been exposed to violence, and in the long term prevent new exposure, concludes Poa Samuelberg.

- All abuse should be taken seriously, regardless of the age of the perpetrator. Children and young people who are sexually abused by a person under the age of 18 risk being just as badly affected as if they are abused by an adult, says Poa Samuelberg, investigator at Barnafrid.



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