FAQs on Treatment for People Who Have Sexually Abused a Child

FAQ Category:
Adult's Behaviors

Sex offender treatment is different than other types of therapy for adults. Treatment for people who have sexually abused a child is a serious and encouraging process. Typically, it focuses on learning specialized strategies for stopping abusive behavior, being accountable, and taking responsibility for harm done. Treatment significantly reduces the future risk of sexually abusing a child for a vast majority of adults and juveniles who have previously abused. Treatment does not offer amnesty nor excuse abusive behaviors. It is not intended to punish or humiliate participants, either. A central focus of treatment is to help an individual create a better life for themselves by developing their strengths while managing risk. Specialized treatment is offered by therapists who specialize in working with adults and youth with sexual behavior problems.

Answers to 10 Frequently Asked Questions

Treatment for people with sexual behavior problems can and does work. There is hope and there is help!

1. Is it true that people who sexually abuse children can change their behavior?

Yes. People can and do learn to change behavior with specialized treatment. It is extremely difficult, however, and often impossible to change these behaviors successfully without the help and support of a professional who is experienced with sex-specific treatment. Changing established patterns of abuse is hardly ever a self-help program.

There are treatment programs nationwide that help people change their abusive behaviors and learn how to live safe, healthy lives. In fact, contrary to popular belief, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that sexual specific treatment reduces the risk for future abusive behavior. And when interventions are offered to adolescents and youth with sexual behavior problems, the likelihood of further abusive behavior can be dramatically reduced, or even eliminated.

2. What are the benefits of treatment to the person abusing or at-risk adult?

  • The burden of keeping the secret of this disturbing problem can be lifted.
  • The cycle of broken promises to oneself that “it will never happen again” can finally end.
  • The abusive behavior can stop, and support is available to rebuild a safer life.
  • There can be support from peers in the treatment group to help the person abusing or at-risk adult stay safe.
  • The child can be protected and/or begin the process of recovery.

3. What are the goals of treatment for sexual behavior problems?

Specialized treatment concentrates on effective behavior management to ensure safety for the individual and for the community. A central focus of treatment is to help an individual create a better life for themselves by developing their strengths while managing risk. Participants address personal accountability, relapse prevention, and possible aid to people who have experienced abuse themselves.

The goals for the person in treatment may include how to:

  • Identify their own specific risk factors and develop a personalized plan for preventing abuse in the future.
  • Recognize and decrease the use of manipulative behavior patterns.
  • Address denial and accept full responsibility for their harmful behaviors, past and present.
  • Understand the impact of harmful behaviors on self and others.
  • Develop healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors.
  • Explore the impact of one’s own childhood trauma if and when appropriate.

Some treatment programs offer an approach to rehabilitation which takes into account the existing strengths and resources of each participant. This can prompt many changes in behavior. This includes other aspects of someone's life, like how they get their needs met. Behaviors which used to work, but are harmful, ideally get replaced by safer ones. 

4. Who can attend treatment?

Someone can make an appointment for treatment if they have sexually harmed someone else, or if they believe they are at risk to do so. Though reaching out for help before a person has crossed the line is ideal, there is help and hope if abuse has occured.

Treatment is available for both adults and teens. There is also specialized therapy for younger children with sexual behavior problems. Typically the approaches to treatment for adolescents and younger children differ from those used with adults. Often treatment providers or specialized therapists will first do an individual evaluation to help determine the usefulness of treatment and the most effective approaches to use. This is also a time when the person entering therapy can also ask questions.

5. What happens in treatment for sexual behavior problems?

Programs are often in outpatient community-based mental health programs or agencies and generally require sessions on a weekly basis. It may be in a group setting facilitated by a trained professional, or in individual sessions. In treatment you will learn strategies, develop skills, and get peer and professional support to manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are potentially harmful.

There are often ground rules and agreements that all participants must follow in order to remain a member of the group. Many people are court ordered to sex specific treatment, but others may choose to go on their own. Treatment plans may include group/individual therapy, couples therapy, family therapy, polygraph (lie detector test) if mandated by the courts, specialized testing, and/or prescribed medications.

6. How long does treatment last?

The duration of the program varies depending on the progress the person in treatment makes. Treatment is not complete until the person changes their behavior and makes safe and healthy decisions. For those who are mandated to attend treatment, a timeframe for treatment may be established as part of that requirement. For some, relapse prevention is a lifelong program.

7. How much does treatment cost?

The cost varies. Some programs accept public or private insurance. Sometimes grants or other assistance are available to help pay for treatment. Other times participants must pay cash. Speak directly with your provider about payment options when setting up your initial or “intake” appointment.

8. Is what I tell my therapist confidential?

What an individual tells their therapist is confidential; however, there are certain circumstances when a therapist must break that promise of confidentiality. Laws in all 50 states require a therapist to contact authorities if a patient is a danger to themselves, to others, and/or if the therapist suspects that a known child has been abused. These reporting laws, as they are applied in your state, are explained to all adults and to guardians of children who seek professional counseling for any reason. Understanding this limitation to the confidentiality offered in sex specific treatment is important, and applies to anyone seeking medical care or mental health services.

9. How do I find a specialized therapist near me?

Treatment for sexual behavior problems is highly specialized which means that the professionals who do this work have received specific training in this area. Some mental health professionals know and understand these issues, but many do not have the specialized knowledge and background. The following organizations offer resources and referrals for adults and youth with sexual behavior problems and for those who have abused. No identifying information is required in order for you to obtain the names and numbers of therapists near you.

For assistance in locating a provider you may also call the Stop It Now! helpline at 1.888.PREVENT or 1.888.773.8368 or email the helpline.  

10. How can I learn more about treatment and the recovery process for adults or youth with sexual behavior problems?

The following organizations offer free online (or print) catalogs of reading resources and recovery materials for clinicians, individuals and families.