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Harmful Sexual Behaviour


This chapter was refreshed in February 2024 and additional links were added into Further Information.

February 5, 2024

‘Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult’. (Hackett 2014 Children and Young People with Harmful Sexual Behaviours).

The definition of sexual abuse within Working Together to Safeguard Children states:
'Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.

The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).

Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.

  • Children and young people of various ages, ethnic origins, family circumstances and of both genders, can behave in a sexually harmful way to others;
  • All reports of abusive / inappropriate sexual behaviour by a child or young person must be taken seriously and responded to appropriately;
  • History of abuse, especially sexual abuse, can contribute to a child displaying harmful sexual behaviour;
  • All children, including the instigator of the behaviour, should be viewed as victims of child abuse as it is harmful;
  • harmful sexual behaviour is different from normal sexual development. It is necessary to distinguish between what is normal sexual development and what is sexually harmful behaviour;
  • Children have greater access to information about sex through technology and this has had an impact on their attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour;
  • Children with harmful sexual behaviours who receive adequate treatment are less likely to go on to commit abuse as an adult compared to children who receive no support;
  • Incidents of sexually harmful behaviour should be dealt with under the specific child protection procedures which recognise the child protection and potentially criminal element to the behaviour. There should be a coordinated approach between the agencies;
  • Support needs to be provided to the victim as well as focusing upon the intervention to the child / young person who is exhibiting sexual harmful behaviour;
  • Interventions that are provided to children and young people who demonstrate sexually harmful behaviour must be underpinned by thorough and appropriate assessments;
  • An assessment should recognise that areas of unmet developmental needs, attachment problems, special educational needs and disabilities may all be relevant in understanding the onset and development of abusive behaviour;
  • The family context is also relevant in understanding behaviour and assessing risk.

There are no diagnostic indicators in personal or family functioning that indicate a pre-disposition towards sexual offending although the following characteristics have been found in the background of some young people who sexually offend:

  • Attachment disorders - poor nurturing and parental guidance;
  • Domestic Abuse;
  • Previous sexual victimisation - a younger age at the onset of the abuse is more likely to lead to sexualised behaviour or previous Sexual Abuse;
  • Social rejection and loneliness;
  • Poor empathy skills;
  • There is an age difference of two years or more between the children;
  • One of the children is significantly more dominant than the other;
  • One of the children is significantly more vulnerable than the other e.g. in terms of disability, confidence, physical strength;
  • There has been some use of threats, bribes or coercion to secure compliance or to maintain secrecy;
  • There is a significant minority of young people who display this behaviour who have a level of learning need - up to 40% in some studies. Their needs must be carefully assessed as some assessment tools are not suitable. Also, the intervention may need to be extended and involve a high degree of coordination between agencies;
  • Many of these factors exist alongside typical family environments where other forms of abuse are present and children will often have experienced some form of trauma.

The link between on-line behaviour and harmful sexual behaviour may also be a cause for concern. Technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) can range from developmentally inappropriate use of pornography (and exposing other children to this), through grooming and sexual harassment. On-line behaviour may be a trigger for sexual abuse and the long-term effect of exposure to pornography can affect the ability to build healthy sexual relationships (see NSPCC Research and Resources for further information).

It can be useful to think of sexual behaviour as a range or continuum from those behaviours that are developmentally and socially accepted to those that are violently abusive.

Most healthy sexual behaviour can be characterised by:

  • Mutuality (Children of a similar developmental and chronological age);
  • Absence of coercion in any form (bullying, emotional blackmail, fear of the consequences);
  • Absence of emotional distress.

Additionally, sexual behaviour which seems compulsive, is repeated in secrecy and continues after interventions from parents or carers, is a cause for concern.

See Further Information for a range of resources and organisations that will support professionals to identify sexual behaviours from inappropriate to problematic to abusive and respond appropriately.

Stop it Now and also a Behaviour Toolkit for Preventing Harmful Sexual Behaviour may also be useful in distinguishing between ‘normal’ age-appropriate behaviour and behaviour which causes concern. In addition, Cumbria are exploring other tools that can be used.

Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour come to light, either through discovery or disclosure, which may be third-party or second-hand information. The details provided should be accurately recorded by the person receiving the initial account. It is essential that all victims are reassured that their allegations are taken seriously, and they will be safeguarded.

Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE) reflects that all staff working with children are advised to maintain an attitude of 'it could happen here' and that it can occur between two children of any age and sex, from primary through to secondary stage and into colleges. A friend may make a report or a member of school or college staff may overhear a conversation that suggests a child has been harmed or a child's own behaviour might indicate that something is wrong and these should be acted upon.

Where the disclosure is to a professional, a designated safeguarding lead should undertake and record an initial risk assessment and consider three factors:

  • The victim, especially their protection and support;
  • The alleged perpetrator; and
  •  The risk to any other children (and, if appropriate, adults).

Concerns about the behaviour and the welfare and safety of the child/ren should be discussed with Children's Social Care which may require a referral and further assessment. If appropriate complete Sexual Exploitation Risk Assessment Tool.

Children‘s Social Care will undertake an assess an interagency strategy meeting if the concerns are that a child has suffered, or a child or children is/are likely to suffer, significant harm. The Strategy Discussion/Meeting is a forum for analysing risk, sharing background information on the young people and planning further action. In addition to Police and children’s Social Care, schools, Youth Justice services or any other agency with significant contact to any of the young people should also be invited to the meeting where appropriate.

The strategy meeting should consider:

  • Issues of child and public protection, including a clear understanding and description of any alleged incident;
  • An assessment of the child/young person’s needs, and the need for further specialist assessment;
  • The roles and responsibilities of child welfare and criminal justice agencies;
  • Any on-going safety issues for all of the young people involved.

The context of the behaviour and background of the young people and their family are important factors in determining next steps. Where there is no requirement to hold a formal strategy meeting, it is still good and useful practice to hold a multi-Agency planning meeting to consider the needs of the children or young people involved commence an Early Help Assessment.

Strategy meetings will make contingency plans for future actions following further assessment and investigation of the incident. The option of reconvening the strategy meeting post the investigation may be useful in some cases.

Specialist opinion may be required to inform the assessment from those providing specialist treatment services for young people who sexually harm others.

Where there are concerns that the alleged abuser is also a victim of abuse consideration should be given to convening a Child Protection Conference if the young person is deemed to have suffered, or is likely to suffer, Significant Harm.

Where a Child Protection Conference is convened the multi-Agency meeting could be incorporated into it in order to avoid repeat meetings. The Child Protection Conference will therefore need to address the needs of the child/young person both as an abuser and as a victim, and this should be made clear at the outset.

In cases where the threshold is met, a meeting should be convened under the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements to consider public protection matters and safety.

Following the investigation, if the decision is made to engage the young person in further work, it is important that these discussions take place as soon after the investigation as possible. Successful engagement of families significantly diminishes if there is a time delay in arranging specialist intervention.

Note Schools should follow the Statutory Guidance: Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE).

See also: Addressing Child-on-child Abuse: a Resource for Schools and Colleges (Farrer and Co.). This is intended to be used as a resource and reference document for practitioners - to consult as and when required and to the extent needed, and to help them navigate whichever area(s) of child-on-child abuse they are dealing with.

Young people may be in denial about having a problem with their sexual behaviour and this may be supported by parents who do not want to confront reality of their child behaving in this way. There is often no legal requirement for the child or family to accept help and it may be easier to ignore the problem than confront it. This is a common response to this issue, practitioners will need to be familiar with the proposed intervention if they are to encourage anyone to accept it. The offer of further work may be helpfully framed as an opportunity to understand how the young person came to be in a position where they behaved in a way considered to be abusive.

Support of parents and carers is extremely helpful in promoting engagements and successful outcomes. Parents need to be informed about the program to the extent that they are aware that sexually explicit conversations will take place, also they may be asked to speak to their child about sexual issues. They may also be asked to model appropriate and respectful sexual attitudes and language.

Evidence suggests that young people 'take on' and internalise labels, and therefore to describe a young person only as a 'sex offender' or 'young abuser' may impact on their motivation and responsiveness in both assessment and treatment, leaving them feeling they cannot change.

Why anyone offends sexually is a complex question. One popular model which seeks to organise thinking around this topic is known as Finkelhor’s Four Pre-conditions to Sexual Abuse, which suggests that four pre-conditions should be in place before an abusive act takes place. Interruption at any stage may prevent abuse taking place.

The stages are:

  1. Motivation to sexually abuse – this can arise from a number of sources which vary with the individual;
  2. Overcoming internal inhibitions – most young people who sexually abuse are aware of the taboos against this behaviour, yet because of their experiences or a specific set of circumstances, they can overcome these;
  3. Overcoming external inhibitions – this can include grooming the victim and involve creating the physical opportunity to commit the offence;
  4. Overcoming the resistance of the child – the offender will employ a variety of methods to commit the offence and equally important keep the victim quiet. These may include bribery, threats or other forms of coercion.

Exploring behaviour using this model may help open up discussion and avoid the pitfalls of falling into asking too many “why” questions. Instead, open questions should be used such as “tell me”, “explain to me”, “describe to me”.

Delays in completing criminal investigations need not necessarily delay referral for specialist help; there is often a significant delay between completing enquiries and a decision being made about whether to prosecute. A programme of work can be agreed with Police and Crown Prosecution Service usually with the proviso that the victim and specific incidents are not discussed.

The Normal Stages of Sexual Development Ages - see Documents Library

Legislation, Statutory Guidance and Government Non-Statutory Guidance

Keeping Children Safe in Education Part Five: Child on Child Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.

Safeguarding Children as Victims and Witnesses (Crown Prosecution Service)

Pre-Trial Therapy (inc Annex A: Specific Considerations for Children) (Crown Prosecution Service)

Useful Websites

Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful Sexual Behaviour - NSPCC research and resources

Harmful Sexual Behaviour Framework: An Evidence-informed Operational Framework for Children and Young People Displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviours (Research in Practice)

Children and Young People Presenting with Harmful Sexual Behaviours: a Toolkit for Professionals (The Children's Society)

Children and Young People who Engage in Technology-assisted Harmful Sexual Behaviour (NSPCC)

Addressing Child-on-child Abuse: a Resource for Schools and Colleges (Farrer and Co.) 

Beyond Referrals: Harmful Sexual Behaviour - School Self-Assessment Toolkit & Guidance.

Tackling Child Exploitation Resources on Harmful Sexual Behaviour (Contextual Safeguarding Network)

Helping education settings identify and respond to concerns (CSA Centre) - when they have concerns of child sexual abuse or behaviour.

Child Protection Resources from Stop It Now - includes a range of publications on preventing abuse among children & young people including online.

Brook Traffic Light Tool Training - Please note: The Traffic Light Tool and training has undergone extensive review and development in 2020. Brook no longer supports previous versions of the Tool.

Last Updated: February 5, 2024