Children and Young People who Display Sexually Inappropriate or Harmful Behaviours


NICE Guidance, Harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people (NG 55)



This chapter was amended in October 2022 to include a link to Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service for the Children’s Workforce (Marie Collins Foundation) to the Further Information Section.

This chapter is currently under review.

1. Introduction and Definition

Harmful Sexual Behaviour is defined as: '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).

See also further guidance: NSPCC What is harmful sexual behaviour.

It is important to recognise that some young people sexually harm in groups. Research has identified the presence of peer influence, group pressure, and group dynamics in young people who sexually harm in a group context. Group based sexual harm has more to do with status, group bonding, dominance and humiliation and debasement of the victim than sexual motivation. [1]

Young people report that schools are locations where they can encounter sexual harm. Sexual harm can manifest in a range of ways, from name calling and sexual bullying and harassment, to sexual assault and violence. Harmful Sexual Behaviours can be exacerbated by harmful and oppressive attitudes towards young women, relationships, and consent. School corridor and playground cultures where sexually harassing behaviours are normalised are also problematic.

However, schools are also places that can provide safety and promote positive ideas about sex, gender, and relationships. The Contextual Safeguarding Network has produced resources to help schools take a whole school approach to preventing harmful sexual behaviour; interventions that go beyond referrals to designated safeguarding leads or social care. The Schools Assessment Framework provides all the resources for schools to assess their response to HSB.

An Ofsted thematic review (Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted)) detailed concerns around sexual peer-on-peer abuse. This abuse included:

  • Sexual violence, such as rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault;
  • Sexual harassment, such as sexual comments, remarks, jokes and online sexual harassment, which may be stand-alone or part of a broader pattern of abuse;
  • Upskirting, which typically involves taking a picture under a person's clothing without them knowing, with the intention of viewing their genitals or buttocks to obtain sexual gratification, or to cause the victim humiliation, distress or alarm;
  • Sexting (also known as 'youth-produced sexual imagery').
See A continuum of children and young people's sexual behaviours (Hackett, S (2010)).

[1] Lia Latchford with Carlene Firmin, Danielle Fritz, and Simon Hackett, Young People Who Sexually Harm in Groups – A Rapid Evidence Assessment of International Literature, Institute of Applied Social Research (2016).

2. Identifying Harmful Sexual Behaviours

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. For guidance on identifying sexual harm we recommend you refer to Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool.

Remember children and young people of various ages, ethnic groups, family circumstances and genders can behave in sexually harmful ways to others.

Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) can be especially vulnerable. Disabled and deaf children are three times more likely to be abused than their peers (Department for Education, 2017). [2]

Children who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender (LGBT) can be targeted by their peers. In some cases, a child who is perceived by their peers to be LGBT (whether they are or not) can be just as vulnerable as children who identify as LGBT (Department for Education, 2017).

Harmful sexual behaviours can occur both online, offline and simultaneously between the two.

[2] Government, December 2017, DfE Sexual Violence & Sexual Harassment between Children in Schools & Colleges, accessed 16 January 2018

3. Key Principles

It should be recognised when working with children and young people who abuse others - including those who sexually abuse/offend – that these children are also likely to have considerable needs themselves, whilst they may pose a significant risk of harm to other children they may need to be considered as vulnerable in their own right. Evidence suggests that children who abuse others may have suffered considerable disruption in their lives, been exposed to violence within the family, may have witnessed or been subject to physical or sexual abuse, have problems in their educational development, and may have committed other offences (Hackett, 2017). [4]

These children and young people are also likely to be suffering or to be at risk of significant harm, and may themselves be in need of protection.

Children and young people who (sexually) abuse others should be held responsible for their abusive behaviour, whilst being identified and responded to in a way which meets their needs as well as protecting others. Early intervention with children and young people who abuse others may, therefore, play an important part in protecting the public by preventing the continuation or escalation of abusive behaviour.

Three key principles should guide work with children and young people who abuse others:

  • There should be a co-ordinated approach between agencies such as; youth justice, child welfare, education (including educational psychology) and health (including child and adolescent mental health). The relationships staff develop with children/young people are one of the most powerful influences in whether interventions are effective;
  • The needs of children and young people who abuse others should be considered separately from the needs of their victims As children/and young people are more amenable to change and are less likely to have a set pattern of sexual thoughts and behaviours. Early identification of sexually abusive behaviour will have the greater potential for change;
  • An assessment should be carried out in each case, appreciating that these children may have considerable unmet developmental needs, as well as specific needs arising from their behaviour (e.g. Early Help, Assessment Intervention Moving on (AIM)).Reports of apparently abusive/inappropriate sexual behaviour by a child or young person must be taken seriously and responded to appropriately.

See: NICE for additional guidance.

Distinguishing if Behaviour is Harmful or Not

Brook, Sexual Behaviour Traffic Light Tool identifies age appropriate normative behaviour:[5]

What if the presenting behaviour is not in the normative list?

The normative list provides examples of the types of behaviours that would sit within each Traffic Light colour category. If the presenting behaviour is not given as an example it may be useful to consider the following questions:

  • Is the behaviour consensual for all children or young people involved?
  • Is the behaviour reflective of natural curiosity or experimentation?
  • Does the behaviour involve children or young people of a similar age or developmental ability?
  • Is the behaviour unusual for that particular child or young person?
  • Is the behaviour excessive, coercive, degrading or threatening?
  • Is the behaviour occurring in a public or private space? How does this affect the colour categorisation?
  • Are other children or young people showing signs of alarm or distress as a result of the behaviour?

It is also worth considering:

  • Were there any power differentials (e.g. age, size, developmental level, does one child have authority over another?
  • Whether the behaviour was legal?
  • Is there any evidence of escalation?
  • How persistent is the sexual behaviour? (E.g. have there been other concerns? Does the behaviour continue despite requests for it to stop?

[4] Hackett, S. (2017), 'Issue of children who sexually abuse other children is not something that can be ignored', The Conversation, accessed 16 January 2018.
[5] Brook, Sexual Behaviour Traffic Light Tool, 2018, accessed on 16 January 2018

4. What You Should Do

Refer to the Brook Sexual Behaviour Traffic Light Tool and Keeping Children Safe in Education in order to make an assessment of the behaviour and what action is needed, whether it can be managed within school, needs early help or social care or police involvement.

The Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted) identified that most children would not report incidents (for a variety of reasons) and many educational establishments were 'unaware' of the significant level of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

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.

Safe Care and Managing Risk

Alongside the AIM assessment, consideration should also be given to developing safe care plans for the child's living environment and school setting. This should be undertaken at an early stage of the intervention by agencies (see Lincolnshire Children's Services Procedures Manual, Safe Care Policy).

Reporting Concerns

Where there are concerns about a child or young person's sexual behaviour, you should ALWAYS refer these concerns to Children's Social care and/or the Police.

Responding To The Child/Young Person

For those staff who have direct contact with the child or young person, it is important to convey that whilst the behaviour is not acceptable, you are not condemning them as a person. You need to show respect and understanding and offer hope that change is possible. Denial and embarrassment should be expected. Let the child/young person know that you are not shocked or offended and avoid confrontation.

Child Protection Referral

Police and Children's Social care will decide whether Section 47 enquiries will be initiated. In ALL circumstances, there should be a social work assessment by Children's Social Care, which includes the relevant AIM assessment model(s).

Consideration should be given to S47 enquiries in respect of the victim and their needs should be addressed within the Child Protection/TAC systems (see Section 47 Enquiries and Social Work Assessments).

Criminal Justice Route

When a young person (aged 10 and over) admits an allegation of sexual abuse the Future for Me team will be notified immediately to allow for the initial (AIM) assessment. Parents and carers should be informed of this decision, if appropriate.

For those young people who deny the allegation or are pending conviction, the Police will process the allegation in the usual manner. However, the AIM assessment can be considered at any stage.

The Assessment Intervention Moving on (AIM) Assessment

The AIM assessment model was developed by the AIM Project in Greater Manchester. This is a social work assessment model, with assessment modules that assess children under twelve; adolescents; families and carers; and those who engage with technology-assisted Harmful Sexual Behaviour. The AIM assessments compliment the DHSC National Assessment Framework for Children in Need and their Families and the Criminal Justice National Assessment Framework (ASSET+).

The AIM assessments should be co-worked. Where applicable, this should be undertaken by workers from two different agencies.