As an admissions director, please know I’m not a therapist. But I do work in a world where I hear parents recount heartbreak after heartbreak, discovering their child is immersed in the worst possible scenarios – the unimaginable. As I seek to help parents find solutions, treatment, and resources to save their children, it’s helpful for them to get as much information as quickly as possible. This article will help you determine which treatment options may be available if your child has engaged in harmful sexual behavior.
The link between pornography and harmful sexual behavior
Exposure to pornography and hyper-sexualized content impacts the developmental growth and perspectives of a child. Children have brains that are growing, learning, and absorbing information and experiences at rapid rates. They go through enormous biological, cognitive, psychological and social changes while growing up.
If that growth is hijacked with inappropriate sexualized material and/or addictive processes, it damages a child’s ability to learn the things they could be learning appropriately at that age. It sets them on a trajectory of growth and understanding that is difficult to correct.
The developmental vulnerabilities of children combined with rushes of neurochemicals during arousal and orgasm to pornography or sexually acting out literally result in a rewiring of the brain. Common disorders we see include depression, anxiety, poor decision-making skills, lack of age-appropriate coping skills, reduced ability to interact well in social situations, trouble connecting with people, poor boundaries, lack of empathy, increased behavior problems, increased levels of sexual aggression, low self-esteem, poor body image just to name a few. -Culture Reframed
By the time parents figure out the issues are beyond normal parenting tools, sexualized behaviors are so compulsive that it collapses the child’s developmental cycles at every turn. To learn more about how porn hijacks young brains, see this series.
Here's what some parents of children in treatment say they wish they had known:
I wish parents would have more education and awareness of what the signs, symptoms, and characteristics are.... Perhaps then parents could respond sooner, or avoid fatal blows altogether, and there would be more hope. -Parent with child in treatment 2019
Wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. This twisted world has armed our children with technology that provides information to kids that they are not prepared for and are unable to process in a mature and appropriate way. -Parent with child in treatment 2020
Prevention is vital. Once our kids have been exposed to certain things, we cannot undo them. If it’s gone on for any length of time, undoing what was done is nearly impossible. Not really a warm and fuzzy story...I do not feel young minds can understand the damage that they are doing when they make these choices. -Parent with teen in treatment 2020
But for parents in this situation, there is hope.
Stages of treatment for a child with harmful sexual behavior
Recognizing that our children learn developmentally helps us understand that the treatment needs to be delivered experientially--so that the child can learn the concepts of addiction, trauma, and recovery within their developmental age range.
So, as we begin to peel back the layers of need, trauma, and difficulty with each family, we move quickly to identifying four broad stages that must be accomplished to achieve the level of “intervention” needed to “reset” a child’s trajectory of growth and learning.
Please know that the following is an oversimplification of the entire process of change, but it’s a good sketch of the different phases needed to obtain an integrated change.
As a treatment professional or program, we must first focus on disrupting the efficacy of the dependencies, tools, and skills the child uses to control and manage their lives within the trauma and addiction itself. It’s optimal if this disruption can be delivered in an environment of sobriety for a minimum of 90 days. For most children, this is difficult to achieve in an out-patient setting, as sexualized material and stimulus surrounds them at every turn.
The treatment must be delivered through experiences. A child cannot be “talked, reasoned, lectured or preached” into wellness. Children learn through experiences. Their brains are not yet mature enough to take information and somehow integrate it into their lives, even if everything sounds right and good. Their good intentions are quickly overrun by the constant drive their bodies and brains are screaming for because of the addiction and the never-ending feelings of failure which keep them in black holes of depression, hopelessness, anxiety, even suicidal ideations.
Once the disruption and experiential learning is provided, the child’s perspectives and competencies will mature, landing them at the half-way mark with what I call a strong therapeutic foundation. They have the knowledge and skills, but are still very tender and new in the process.
Now they have to test the water and demonstrate this new way of being in an environment that will allow for that developmental journey to continue without the threat of relapse.
This will take another 9-12 months; maybe longer depending on the layers of developmental damage that have occurred in their earlier years. Every child is different. Every family is unique and the journey to recovery is individual.
If the above three stages are done well, the final stage is reintegration back into the family unit. Now on a proper developmental trajectory appropriate to their age and a willingness to be parented, they develop the skills and experience they need to continue growing up. It’s not a one and done. They won’t be perfect, but they will be back on track.
Having a son with an addiction is hard, really hard. Even when you are working with your child it feels like nothing is working. Sometimes you feel you are not doing enough, even though you are exhausted. There were times even though we were working with our son that we were failing him. If I could let people know, you don’t have to do it alone and you are not alone. “Sometimes Love isn’t enough.” We loved our son so much and we did everything we could for him. I thought that because we loved him so much that it would somehow cure him of his addictions, however it was not enough and we needed help from professionals who knew what they were doing and how to teach my son the tools to overcome and move forward. -Parent with a teen in treatment 2020
Services available for children with harmful sexual behaviors
The resources for treatment for children who have harmful sexual behaviors have not yet caught up to the tsunami of developmental concerns in our hypersexualized world. Treatment professionals trained in Universities with State Licenses need additional training and credentialing for sexual addiction and trauma training, and then additional training specific to children and teens.
Here are some things to know:
- There is no specific professional sexual-treatment credential or standardized training currently available for pornography addiction for children.
- There is no specific professional credential or standardized training currently available for internet, social media, process, or gaming addictions for children.
- Training in these specialized addictions for adults is not completely transferrable or useful when working with children as most adult treatment is highly intellectual, created for mature operating brains.
- Treating children and adolescents is a specialty--think Pediatrics, bone, brain, organ specialists – that’s what you are looking for in Mental Health too.
At 15 years old our daughter was addicted to violence and sex and wanted to run away with her abuser because she did not understand what love was supposed to feel like. How does a parent "fix this"? It was painful to know I did not have any tools at home to fix my child of the deception she was fed from Porn videos. -Parent with teen in treatment 2019
Here’s a list of definitions of some of the services you may find:
- Psychiatry Licensed Physicians who employ medication management to alter destructive behaviors. This can be helpful in some situations, but almost never resolves the issues without accompanying behavioral health and trauma therapy.
- Outpatient individual sessions The child meets one-on-one with a Psychologist, Social Worker, Licensed Counselor and/or Mental Health Provider. Very few are aware of more intensive resources outside of their local purview. Reminder: It’s difficult to find those that have experience with childhood sexual and pornography addictions, compulsive sexual behaviors, Reactive Attachment Disorders and/or early childhood developmental trauma training.
- Day Treatment Programs This is usually a controlled group setting five days a week with the intent to provide experiential treatment and academics, usually offered in Mental Health facilities or hospitals run by trained paraprofessionals and overseen by a licensed therapist. This includes daily groups and individual sessions. It’s very difficult to find those that specialize in sexual or pornography addictions. Combining children with compulsive sexual behaviors and/or addictions with drug/alcohol addicted children is not recommended. There’s usually not enough supervision to prevent inappropriate acting out amongst peers.
- Intensive Outpatient Programs Usually a controlled group setting three days a week with fewer hours, often run by interns or trained paraprofessionals. This treatment option has the same drawbacks as mentioned for Day Treatment Programs.
- Pornography Addiction groups Sometimes professionals and/or clinics offer specialized groups after school for adolescent/teen pornography addictions. These groups can be helpful if addictions are caught early on. It’s important to find groups that are porn or sex addiction specific – not generalized addiction.
- Hospitalization Usually for short-term stabilization or crisis situations such as suicidal ideation, self-harm, aggression, running away or human trafficking. There are very few services specific to the difficulties we are talking about. Make sure you ask for a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) to help with the evaluation if your child has been taken to a hospital as a result of an assault or sexual trauma.
- Behavioral Hospital Again, this is mostly for short-term stabilization, medication management or crisis assistance. If the hospital does have a longer-term behavioral health program, be sure to ask about levels of supervision, specialties in sexual addiction and what the protocols are for keeping your child safe while attending.
- Mandated State/Government Sexual Offender Programs This involves set time frames and are often a mix of youth from private families and court-ordered or adjudicated youth. Each State has their own curriculum and credentialing process for the professionals treating in these programs.
- Religious Priests, Bishops, Pastors, Counselors – while very compassionate and supportive, very few have training for sexual and porn addictions or are aware of what is available outside of their local environment.
- Online curriculums for youth Look for the ones that offer group support, Zoom conferences and mentoring, not just written curriculum as this again puts the child face to face with their addiction of being on the internet unsupervised.
- Parenting Workshops and Blogs Sometimes it’s enough to go to a workshop or listen to experienced experts, teachers and parents to figure out how to parent a child with harmful sexual behaviors. This usually is most helpful in the prevention/education stages of exposure. It may not have too much of an effect after the addiction has been molded.
- Private full-time Secular Treatment Programs The average length of stay in this type of program is 12-18 months. Again, very few specialize in internet addiction, gaming, sexualized addictions, and behaviors.
- Private full-time Faith-Based Treatment Programs The length of stay varies in these programs, but there is always a faith component. Be sure to ask if it’s faith and therapeutic or simply faith-oriented. Also ask what credentialing and experience the program has working with your child’s specific addiction.
- Private Wilderness Therapy Programs The average length of stay in these programs is 3-4 months. Star Guides Wilderness Therapy is currently the only wilderness program in the world treating issues associated with social media, internet, gaming, pornography, sexual addictions and accompanying mental health disorders.
Questions to ask when seeking treatment for harmful sexual behavior
Most therapists WON'T (or maybe can’t) tell you what is going on with your kid! We had our daughter in therapy for a couple of years for what we thought was anxiety and depression and harmful behaviors. MOST therapists we had would not tell us that our daughter was in a dangerous sexual relationship and was cutting. Her addiction to pain coupled with sexual addictions and porn addiction led her into a dangerous sexual relationship that eventually was life threatening and ended in a rape. If a Therapist had told me about the "secrets" my daughter was hiding from me, we could have helped her earlier on instead of waiting for a rape to occur. Government appointed Therapists next door to the middle school offered my 15-year-old daughter birth control and anti-depressants without needing parental permission to a child that was prone to addiction and deeply involved in violent sex addiction and in an abusive relationship.
Parent with teen in treatment 2018
Things to ask when seeking treatment:
- Can the program/professional speak openly with you regarding the treatment of your child.
- What is the age of majority in your state? Does it allow you, the parent, to stay in control of the treatment choices for your child?
- Will the treatment include parent/family systems training?
- Will the treatment respect and abide by the religious or spiritual beliefs of your family?
- Will you be notified if there are mandated legal issues that need to be reported prior to reporting them?
- Does the professional/program have sexual trauma training? If so, what?
- What are the residential sleeping arrangements? Awake Staff at night?
- How many children are together? What is the staff to student ratio?
- What kind of training do the staff undergo for this specialty?
- Are there mixed genders in the groups?
- Do the kids have time on devices? Do they have access to the internet?
- Can the kids leave at will?
- Will my insurance pay for these costs?
- What will be my out-of-pocket costs?
- How often will I be communicating with my child? In what forms?
If you have questions, feel free to reach out to me! Robin Reber, Admissions Director Star Guides; firstname.lastname@example.org or 435-414-5786.
This is Part 3 in a 4-part series. Part 1 gives parents an overview of what to expect. In Part 2 we discuss how to navigate the legal and reporting requirements. Part 4 discusses how to find and fund treatment.
The recommended resources listed by the author have not been vetted by Protect Young Minds. If you have any questions, please contact Robin Reber with the above contact information.