An exploration of attachment strategies among young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour
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Background: It is estimated that adolescent offenders account for 65% of contact child sexual abuse. A range of explanatory theories and models of intervention have been proposed. These are mainly based on cognitive theories with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and psycho-education remaining as the dominant models of treatment intervention. This research explored the issue of harmful sexual behaviour from the psychosocial perspective, drawing on attachment theory and social constructionism.
Aim: The research explored attachment strategies among young people with harmful sexual behaviour. It examined young people’s understanding and explanations regarding their sexually abusive behaviour. This included an exploration of how the participants’ accounts and defensive strategies were shaped by wider family and cultural discourses regarding masculinity and sexual activity. In selected cases, the family intergenerational patterns of attachment and emotional regulation were analysed. Furthermore, the research explored the prevalence of harmful sexual behaviour in the study area. This included an exploration of statutory responses and services which were offered to people who engaged in harmful sexual behaviour.
Methods: The research employed three interconnected research methods: a) a quantitative audit data of fifty cases which had been reported to the Children’s Services; b) qualitative and descriptive quantitative exploration of eight Transition to Adulthood Attachment Interviews and semi-structured interviews; c) qualitative exploration of the family context and trans-generational patterns of defensive strategies by conducting an Adult Attachment Interview in three cases. The analysis of the attachment and open-ended interviews utilised a combination of the structured ‘discourse analysis’ developed for the Adult Attachment Interview and Critical Discourse Analysis.
Findings: The research found that there was no clear and consistent pathway of social care for young people who engaged in harmful sexual behaviour. The analysis of psychological defensive processes found that all of the participants presented with complex insecure attachment strategies alongside intrusions of unresolved traumas or losses. The exploration of intergenerational patterns of attachment strategies identified that all parents showed complex avoidant attachment strategies with intrusion of unresolved trauma and loss. The qualitative study identified a range of discourse themes and strategies in the accounts the young people offered in order to explain their actions and to maintain their sense of self. The dominant discourse themes shared by the young people were: a) life is hard and violence is normal; b) a sense of powerlessness; c) sexual entitlement, d) bravado and denial of vulnerability.
Conclusion: Complex insecure attachment strategies with intrusion of trauma and loss play a significant role in the development of harmful sexual behaviour. In addition, the study suggests that the complex relationship between care, comfort and sexual behaviour should be a central focus of clinical interventions with this group of young people and should be investigated further in future research studies.
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