Reflections on Stepping Up, a new harmful sexual behaviour group for young people

Reflections on Stepping Up, a new harmful sexual behaviour group for young people blog article was written by Kim Mackay, Team Leader, Child Trauma Service and Tina Icaro, Senior Child and Family Counsellor at Australian Childhood Foundation.

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is a complex area, with a growing number of practitioners and researchers identifying that some children and young people have behaviours that are sexually harmful to others. There is also a deeper understanding that this group of young people are not the same as adult offenders, and requires a more holistic and child-centred approach to assessment and treatment.

Stepping Up: a new approach

Stepping Up, a new group delivered by Australian Childhood Foundation aims to support young people engaging in HSB through an eight-week program attended by teenagers aged 13 -16.

The program aims to support and provide opportunities for learning and connection, a chance to express thoughts and feelings, be challenged, engage in fun activities, and meet other young people with similar experiences. Stepping Up focused on several themes relevant to young people engaging in HSB, including:

  • Identity
  • Building emotional and somatic literacy
  • Relationships
  • Boundaries
  • Understanding consent
  • Sexting
  • Pornography and cyber safety

These topics fit within the program’s overarching themes of relationships and connection, offering a sense of hope that things can be different. Each week, two facilitators provided psychoeducation and a space to explore thoughts, feelings, and emotions around the content. There was a focus on normalising and raising awareness around sexuality, exploring gender and masculinity. It was also important to provide opportunities to reflect, learn from each other and connect to self and others. We named and talked about why the participants were there – because of their harmful sexual behaviours – to avoid ambiguity or any confusion. The group included seven participants and took place each week for 90 minutes.

Key lessons so far

As facilitators, we reflected together after each session and at the end of the eight-week Stepping Up program. We noted our observations and participant comments – it was evident that participants engaged more openly as the weeks progressed. They began to challenge each other’s views, hold each other accountable and were able to repair relationship ruptures throughout the program. Comments from young people included, “I didn’t think you guys [referring to facilitators] would be nice” and, “It was good that the group was in person”. During a Safe Space activity, when the participants were asked to visualise being somewhere they felt ‘safe’, one young person asked, “Can my place be here [at Australian Childhood Foundation]? I don’t really feel safe anywhere else?”.

The post-survey evaluations identified that by the end of the program, participants felt more comfortable attending individual counselling, were able to talk to their parents/carers about pornography and consent more easily and felt more confident talking about their feelings and emotions. Some of the feedback from parents and carers stated their child was “enforcing better boundaries with their siblings”, and that they were “talking to them [parent or carer] more”. One parent also commented that their child’s “anxiety had reduced since attending the group”.

Aside from the relevance of the content and weekly themes covered, some of the most important factors contributing to the success of Stepping Up were:

  • Having a strengths-based, non-judgemental, and non-shaming leadership approach
  • Understanding the impact of trauma on development as well as the participants’ stage of development – which helped to keep our expectations in check as facilitators
  • Providing a good balance of nurture, structure and accountability to create safety
  • Role modelling to encourage healthy communication and boundaries, creating an environment of respect and trust
  • Clarity and naming the common goal, which was to address and reduce their harmful sexual behaviours, giving the group a common focus and collective responsibility.

The Stepping Up group was a positive experience for all involved. We continue to grow and learn with and from the young people we are working with and look forward to facilitating further groups.

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