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Harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people

Problematic and harmful sexual behaviour can involve one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development. These can range from using sexually explicit words and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults.

What is harmful sexual behaviour (HSB)?

Sexual behaviour between children is considered harmful if the child is being coerced or threatened or if one of the children is older. When establishing if a child’s sexual behaviour is harmful, we must not only take their age into account but also their physical, intellectual and emotional development.

Sexually harmful behaviours are likely to include elements of:

  • coercion
  • secrecy
  • power imbalance possibly involving significant difference in age and developmental factors
  • degradation and threats
  • compulsive behaviours
  • age inappropriate knowledge or experience
  • use of bribes, gifts and removal of inhibitors, for instance through the use of drugs or alcohol

Stages of sexual development

Children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters changes with them.

Each child is an individual and will develop in their own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of similar age. It can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour.

View guidelines on healthy/expected sexual development (pdf 238 KB)

Identifying HSB

Sexualised behaviour which is significantly more advanced than you would normally expect for a child of a particular age or which shows a lack of inhibition, could be a cause for concern. For example, a pre-school child who talks about sex acts or uses adult language or a 12 year old who masturbates in public.

Other warning signs include:

  • sexual interest in adults or children of very different ages to their own
  • forceful or aggressive sexual behaviour
  • compulsive habits
  • reports from school that their behaviour is affecting their progress and achievement

Guidelines for schools
Schools should be aware of the AIM (Assessment Intervention Moving on) education guidance. Primary and secondary schools in Waltham Forest should use these guidelines when an incident has occurred to determine the level of concern and response needed to the behaviour.

Responding to concerns about HSB – parents and adults

One of the hardest things for parents or carers to discover is that their child may have sexually harmed or abused another child. In this situation, denial, shock and anger are normal reactions. If you do not respond too quickly and sensitively, the effect on the whole family can be devastating. For this reason it is vital to contact someone for advice about what to do as soon as you suspect that something is wrong.

Early help for the child or young person and their family can make a real difference. The earlier children can get help, the more chance there is of preventing them moving on to more serious behaviour.

Report a concern about HSB

Assessment model - for professionals working with children and young people

The AIM project is a leading organisation in the development of clear working practices and a consistent response to children and young people who present with harmful sexual behaviour. They have devised an evidence based model enabling agencies to work collaboratively to assess and where appropriate provide interventions targeting the strengths and protective factors within families.

They also provide training, guidance and support around the use of the AIM model.

Get more information on the AIM Project website.

Resources

The following organisations and projects provide information and advice about issues relating to harmful sexual behaviour, including keeping children safe from sexual abuse and recognising risk.

  • Stopitnow: Helpline and information for concerned adults
  • Brook: Free and confidential sexual health and wellbeing services for young people under 25 and their family or carers
  • NSPCC: Help for children who have been abused to rebuild their lives, protect those at risk, and find the best ways of preventing abuse from ever happening.
    The NSPCC’s Underwear Rule campaign a simple way that parents can help keep children safe from sexual abuse, without using scary words or even mentioning sex.
  • Banardo’s: Resources and advice concerning harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people.
  • ChildLine: Advice for anyone under 18 years of age. Call 0800 1111 to speak to a counsellor. Calls are free and confidential. Online chat, email and web based services and advice are also available.

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