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What About me? – Effective Supervision and the impact of working with harmful sexual behaviour – Karen Martin 

My workshop in Belfast this year focussed on the impact of harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) work on practitioners and effective supervision when working with this client group. Drawing on research on the lived experience of practitioners working within an HSB service, I outlined their reported experiences of both the impact of working in this field and their experiences of supervision. 

Research indicates that nationally around one third of all sexual offences are committed by children and young people under the age of 18 (NSPCC, 2019). Despite this high figure there is very little research into the impact of HSB work on practitioners working in the field; with a tendency for academics to focus on the experiences of professionals working with survivors of trauma and sexual abuse and not those who have committed the abuse.  

In the 1980’s and 90’s focus was on the negative impact of working with trauma and abuse with terms such as ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘secondary stress’ (Figley, 1983; 1995) being regularly cited. The notion that professionals in this area of work become less compassionate the more they are exposed to the trauma of their clients and the idea that ‘vicarious traumatization’, a term coined by Pearlman & Saakvitne (1995) used to describe how the fundamental beliefs of practitioners about the world are altered, and possibly damaged, by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material, were regularly used. 

Almond (2015) more recently focussed on the experience of practitioners working in the field of HSB and this highlighted that whilst the work can have a negative impact, this largely comes from hearing about the child’s own trauma rather than from the work itself. 

Overall practitioners in this research felt positive about the work they do, and they found the work rewarding on both a personal and professional level. The most frequently cited stressors were the under valuing of HSB work, remoteness of management & target driven aims of the organisation. Practitioners felt that recognition of the importance of the work they do was key to feeling valued.

The biggest criticism reported is in the structure and organisation in which the work is being delivered, with practitioners reporting that it is the organisational systems that can be a barrier to carrying out effective work. Lack of supervision, training, knowledge and support were also cited:  If managers and supervisors are not skilled or ‘expert’ in the field it did not give practitioners any confidence in what they were doing, stating it is like the ‘blind leading the blind’.

The research suggests that confusion about the purpose of supervision is evident and quite often practitioners report having no supervision at all. The difference between line management supervision and reflective supervision is often misunderstood and the lines blurred. If line manager supervision and reflective supervision is carried out by the same person it can create suspicion about confidentiality, with practitioners worrying that they will be perceived as failing or struggling and subsequently worrying about the impact that could have on their performance report. Emphasis on what tasks they had and hadn’t completed made them feel less valued and there was a lack of recognition of the impact of the work on them as individuals and in their roles outside of work.

Ultimately this study suggests that the overall experience of practitioners working in the field of HSB is positive, but their experience of supervision does not contribute to this with them either not receiving supervision at all, or if they do it, feeling it gets confused with line management and the benefits of reflection are lost.  In my view, in order to deliver good supervision the following points are important to consider:

• Offering a non-judgemental safe space

• Clinical supervision offered by a person outside of the organisation

• Separate reflective supervision from line management/task-orientated supervision

• Having a knowledgeable and experienced supervisor in the field of HSB

• Being practitioner led

As Tony Morrison wrote “…at the end of the day, the greatest resource available to… organisations is the people who work for them” (1990, p.257).   We therefore need to invest in good quality, meaningful supervision in order to support the work that our practitioners are delivering which in turn will achieve the best outcome for the children, young people and families with whom we work.

Karen Martin, Harmful Sexual Behaviour Service Manager, Suffolk Children and Young People’s and Youth Justice Service


Almond, T. (2014) Working with children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: exploring impact on practitioners and sources of support. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 20, 333-353.
Figley, C. R. (1983). Catastrophes: An overview of family reactions. In C. R. Figley & H. McCubbin (Eds.), Stress & the family; coping with catastrophe (2nd ed., pp. 320). New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Figley, C. R. (Ed.). (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatised. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Hackett, S., Branigan, P. and Holmes, D. (2019) Harmful sexual behaviour framework: an evidence-informed operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. 2nd ed. London: NSPCC.
Morrison, T. (1990). The emotional effects of child protection work on the worker. Practice, 4(4), 25327.
Pearlman, Laurie A., & Saakvitne, Karen W. (1995). Trauma and the Therapist: Countertransference and Vicarious Traumatization in Psychotherapy with Incest Survivors. New York: W.W. Norton.