I read your column last year on teaching kids not to get into trouble with their sexual behavior. Unfortunately that’s what we’re facing right now. My son was sexually inappropriate with a younger cousin. His mom doesn’t want to turn him in for his sake and for her child’s. But I think he needs more help than we can give him to understand why he did this and to not do it again. What should we do to get him help and not make the situation worse for everyone?
Samantha: I’m sorry you are stuck in such a challenging and emotionally draining situation. While you may consider it lucky that your son will not be reported, the fact that he never gets truly punished for what he’s done could have some negative consequences. If he continues this behavior and winds up getting caught as an adult, the legal ramifications will be devastating. This is not something your son or his cousin can put out of their minds and pretend it never happened. This will affect them for the rest of their lives.
However, I can see why reporting the incident to the authorities and going through the legal system could just put the victim through more trauma. Respecting the victim’s mother’s wishes does make sense.
As a loving parent, you want to help your son out of the mess he’s made, but you cannot do it alone. Both he and the younger cousin need therapy. If you can afford it, offer to pay for the younger cousin’s therapy. They both need to see therapists who specialize in sexual abuse counseling. Treatment will help you and your son discover the reasons for his actions. Maybe he was abused when he was younger. If so, letting him know that unwanted sexual touching is not OK in his case or in his cousin’s case will help him sort through his feelings.
Additionally, you may want to consider counseling for yourself and the other mother involved. While the problem was centered around your children, this is a difficult time for both of you, and you deserve an outlet to discuss your feelings. Remember that his actions are not your actions, and while others may judge you for what he did, it really is not your fault.
In the meantime, you need to keep your son away from younger children. Investigate where children live in your neighborhood, and monitor where he is going. Obviously, he should have no contact with the younger cousin. This may make your son feel disconnected from the family, but you need to explain to him that there are consequences for what he did, and this is one of them.
It’s difficult to decide how you should act around your son after something like this. It may be tempting to displace your anger about what happened onto everything he does, but don’t. You don’t have to act like nothing happened either. Tell him what he did was wrong, and that it will take some time for you to completely forgive him. But remember to tell your son that you love him, and that you believe he can change.
Wes: Samantha hit many of the high points, especially regarding treatment. However, I’ll add two realities to her excellent suggestions. First, your son doesn’t have to wait ‘til he’s an adult to face adult-like consequences for this behavior. Quite commonly district attorneys threaten to charge even younger teens as adults in order to pressure plea agreement. Adjudicated teens are routinely put on the sex offenders registry, a much more devastating consequence that will last well into adulthood. Second, we’ve known for many years that the “profile” of a teen sex offender has almost nothing to do with that of an adult offender, so teens are easier to treat and have better outcomes. That said, today’s model is not about treatment but severe legal sanction. As a parent, this means that you must balance protection of this victim and any future victims against protection of your child’s legal rights and psychological health. That’s not easy, but it is doable.
Samantha is correct. It’s vital that your son get professional help. You can’t just sit on this, even if the victim’s family asks you to do so. If you fail to hold him accountable and help him understand and change his behavior, you’re enabling it to continue. On the other hand, the minute you step into a therapist’s office and share this story he will be reported to the authorities, and they will act decisively.
For that reason we advise families to immediately seek counsel at the same moment we’re filing an SRS report. Since I have no idea who you are, I can’t make a report and you are free to head straight out and retain an attorney before taking your son to therapy. An attorney will be expensive but is absolutely necessary. That’s not going to make your son’s problems go away, nor should that be your intent. However, the goal of social service and legal intervention is not to help your son, no matter what you may be told. Their goal is to protect victims from further abuse. I’ve spent a career on that same important goal, and I know Samantha has been involved in similar pursuits. Having a good attorney on day one and a good therapist on day two will increase the chances that your son gets the kind of intervention Samantha describes, while facing due process and hopefully, a reasonable measure of justice.
As Sam noted, the burden is on you to supervise this young man 24/7 to be sure he does not reoffend while you’re getting all this in place. If there are younger children in your home, I recommend you send him to grandparents or somewhere that has no risk factors. This may sound extreme, but until you have the eyes of a professional on this young man, you must assume the worst.
Next week: How much work is too much for teens?
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.