When Children Abuse

About This Program

Target Population: Children from 5 to 12 years of age who have been identified by any number of sources for exhibiting inappropriate sexual behavior that involves the exploitation of other children

For children/adolescents ages: 5 – 12

For parents/caregivers of children ages: 5 – 12

Program Overview

When Children Abuse is a structured, cognitive behavioral program that addresses the dynamics and behavior of children with sexual behavior problems. The types of sexual behavior addressed include a broad spectrum, ranging from socially inappropriate behavior to aggressive sexual assault involving force or coercion.

It was developed with issue-related modules that can be tailored to address the child, the behavior and the circumstances presented at intake and as treatment progresses. Its guidelines include intake criteria, client assessment, and two types of progress and evaluation tools which can be applied during and following treatment.

It is a "Parallel" treatment program because it includes simultaneous educational/ treatment groups for the caretakers of its child clients, due to the degree of dysfunction, unresolved personal issues and/or emotional reactions of the parents.

The program is based on the belief that a child, regardless of the specificity of the referral or severity of the behavior, must be seen and addressed as a whole child. If there are multiple diagnoses or abuse issues, cognitive/developmental issues, complex family circumstances, etc., these should be addressed as part of treatment.

Program Goals

The goals of When Children Abuse are:

  • The client will develop the tools to stop inappropriate sexual behavior.
  • The client will gain skills to develop positive relationships with peers and younger children.
  • The client who has been abused will be able to resolve the trauma in such a way that it will not be used as a primitive defense mechanism (i.e., as a projective identification with the aggressor).
  • Upon completion of treatment, the client will be able to develop positive attachments to caregivers and significant others.
  • The family will develop an understanding of the issues that brought them into treatment and gain an understanding of the reasons behind the behavior.
  • Other impulsivity issues and co-morbid diagnoses will be addressed, and symptoms will be reduced.
  • The client who feels shamed or unworthy will gain a more positive sense of him or herself.

Logic Model

The program representative did not provide information about a Logic Model for When Children Abuse.

Essential Components

The essential components of When Children Abuse include:

  • Format and Philosophy:
    • When Children Abuse uses structured groups of six children (with individual treatment as needed) which address the issues, behaviors and needs of children who exhibit sexually abusive behavior.
      • Structuring the program around key behavioral issues and activities helps reduce impulsivity and sexual acting out.
      • One-on-one approaches often results in defensiveness; traditional group treatment challenges limited coping skills and tends to increase anxiety and acting-out behavior; and nondirective play therapy offers no way to bind anxiety.
    • The philosophy, program components and treatment approaches are available in the form of a soft cover book entitled: When Children Abuse, Cunningham & MacFarlane, 1991. (This is an updated version of their prior book, When Children Molest.) This expanded version includes the importance of attachment issues, medication alternatives (if the child has an impulsive behavior that is not responding to therapy), individual treatment approaches (e.g., sand tray therapy), as well as fire-setting and animal cruelty.
  • Three Program Components:
    • Planning and Intervention:
      • Intake and Assessment: assessing normal vs. inappropriate sexual behavior, and following progress weekly and monthly using progress evaluation tools and assessment tools including:
        • Child Behavior Checklist for 6-18 Years of Age (CBCL/6-18)
        • Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale
        • Connors Rating Scale (particularly if ADHD symptoms are demonstrated)
        • Roberts Apperception Test for Children
        • Child Sexual Behavior Inventory III (CSBI)
        • Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC)
        • Test of Problem Solving - Elementary (TOPS-E)
      • Management of Group Behavior: This component includes a module for group management techniques with focus on tools to help clinicians conduct groups that contain impulsive, acting-out children.
      • Working with Parent Groups: The parallel parents' treatment group is an essential component of the program, so the curriculum also includes guidelines on conducting parents' groups.
    • Teaching Skills and Competencies:
      • This component has seven issue-based modules which include developmentally appropriate activities in the following areas:
        • Building self esteem
        • Managing anger
        • Problem solving skills
        • Victimization/Trauma issues
        • Perpetration issues
        • Building empathy
        • Sexuality; Sex role stereotyping
        • Examples of other issues addressed include: identifying feelings, attachment and loss, and relapse prevention.
      • There are specific goals for each module.
      • It is important to note that not all child clients need exposure to each module or to all aspects of every module (i.e., some may not need to address prior trauma, for others, it may be a core component of their treatment.) Some children may need to focus primarily on anger management and its expression via inappropriate sexual behavior. However, many have co-morbid factors, including diagnoses of ADHD, Conduct or Attachment Disorder, Asperger's, etc. For these children, regardless of their identified sexual behavior, the modules such as empathy training and social skills can aid in behavior management even as deeper issues are being explored. In addition, Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) can be used for children with abuse histories. Again, the goal is to treat the whole child with the best tools available.
    • Treatment Approaches:
      • Children's groups are generally divided by age and sex. There are a wide range of issue-related activities; clinicians can pick the activities that are most developmentally appropriate for their groups.
      • Most aspects of the curriculum can readily be adapted for use in individual therapy. It includes a chapter on sand-tray therapy with victims of abuse.
      • Smaller, companion manuals on related aspects of treatment are also available to supplement the curriculum. For example: From Trauma to Understanding and Steps to Healthy Touching, by the same authors are both available from Safer Society Press.
  • Other Essential Books Used by Clinicians, Parents, and Clients (citations included in reference section below)
    • All clinicians that are working with this population should have access to the book: Children with Sexual Behavior by William Friedrich. Dr. Friedrich was the pioneer in this field, and this publication states all of the research that he and others compiled related to children with sexual behavior problems, as well as suggested hands-on treatment techniques. His philosophy of treating the whole child and not just the sexual acting out behavior is important when treating these children, as often there are other family issues, attachment issues, and other problems with which these children present. From Trauma to Understanding is a book by Pithers, Stickrod-Gray, Lane, and Cunningham that helps parents understand the issues in simple terms, in a supportive manner. Steps to Healthy Touching by MacFarlane and Cunningham, has homework assignments and can be a companion workbook for older children.

Program Delivery

Child/Adolescent Services

When Children Abuse directly provides services to children/adolescents and addresses the following:

  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors toward younger children, such as fondling, compulsive masturbation, oral copulation, sexual or physical coercion, and sexual acting out that is so compulsive that it is affecting the child's life and the family's functioning. If the child has been a victim of or witnessed a trauma, that also is addressed. If the child is particularly sexually aggressive, the program includes assessment and treatment tools for that. It also includes modules that address other impulsive behaviors that may associated with sexual acting out.

Parent/Caregiver Services

When Children Abuse directly provides services to parents/caregivers and addresses the following:

  • Childhood sexual victims, overwhelmed that they are in the system, overwhelmed there are child victims in the family, angry at the child perpetrator, and attachment disorder

Recommended Intensity:

One 90-minute group session per week, unless the particular client is in extreme crisis, then individual therapy also may be warranted

Recommended Duration:

If the child was involved in a minor incident, is responding to the program, and has an adequate support system, duration may be as short as 3 months. If the family is extremely dysfunctional, the child has an additional diagnosis, or the sexual behavior is aggressive, coercive, or extremely compulsive, 6 to 9 months is more likely.

Delivery Settings

This program is typically conducted in a(n):

  • Adoptive Home
  • Birth Family Home
  • Foster / Kinship Care
  • Hospital
  • Outpatient Clinic
  • Community-based Agency / Organization / Provider
  • Group or Residential Care
  • School Setting (Including: Day Care, Day Treatment Programs, etc.)


This program does not include a homework component.

Resources Needed to Run Program

The typical resources for implementing the program are:

In a group setting environment, two therapists per group, rooms large enough for 6-8 children, and a separate, larger group room for the parents. Children and parents do not need manuals but clinicians will need a Xerox machine to copy some of the materials. They also need crayons, some puppets, and other play therapy tools that may be necessary. The parents group needs at least one therapist, but two are preferable. In addition, pre/post-testing measurements will need to be purchased by the agency.

Manuals and Training

Prerequisite/Minimum Provider Qualifications

Licensed supervisors should who have knowledge of the sexual abuse field and in the area of children with sexual behavior problems. It is important for there to be a PhD available to the agency to do the pre and post testing, as well as any other psychological testing that may be necessary. Clinicians should have at least a Bachelor's Degree, and knowledge of child development and sexual abuse. Preferably, they would be in a program to become licensed.

Manual Information

There is a manual that describes how to deliver this program.

Training Information

There is training available for this program.

Training Contacts:
  • Carolyn Cunningham, PhD

    phone: (818) 845-5679
  • Kee MacFarlane, MSW
    phone: (619) 723-6305
Training Type/Location:

it can be provided onsite, or at a mutually agreed site, where multiple agencies may come.

Number of days/hours:

3 days for 5-7 hours per day

Additional Resources:

There currently are additional qualified resources for training:

  • Jessica Card, PhD, and Linda Damon, PhD, from the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic-Family Stress Center.
  • Dr. Toni Cavanagh Johnson is in private practice in Pasadena and has a set of materials for this population.

Relevant Published, Peer-Reviewed Research

Currently, there are no published, peer-reviewed research studies for When Children Abuse.

Additional References

Freidrich, W. (2007). Children with sexual behavior problems: Family-based, attachment-focused therapy. New York: W. W. Norton.

MacFarlane, K., & Cunningham, C. (2003). Steps to healthy touching: activities to help kids understand and control their problems with touching, 2nd Ed. Jist Works: St. Paul, MN.

Pithers, W., Cunningham, C., Lane, S., and Gray, A. S. (1993). From trauma to understanding: A guide for parents of children with sexual behavior problems. Safer Society Press: Brandon, VT.

Contact Information

Carolyn Cunningham, PhD
Agency/Affiliation: Private Practice and Anger Management 411
Phone: (818) 845-5679 or (818) 951-3200
Fax: (760) 295-8177

Date Research Evidence Last Reviewed by CEBC: November 2023

Date Program Content Last Reviewed by Program Staff: November 2016

Date Program Originally Loaded onto CEBC: August 2011