Skip to main content
Hull SCB Logo
Size: View this website with small text View this website with medium text View this website with large text View this website with high visibility


Harmful sexual behaviours are 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)

The current definition of Sexual Abuse in Working Together to Safeguard Children is also relevant as it recognises that such abuse can be perpetrated by children as well as adults.

An Ofsted thematic review (Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted, June 2021) 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)).

Children who Display Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Whenever a child has been sexually harmed by another child, all agencies must be aware of their responsibilities to both the victim and the child who carried out the harmful sexual behaviour. Children who harm others may also pose a risk to other children, and the safety of their victim and other children is of paramount importance.

Often children who display harmful sexual behaviours will have unmet needs themselves. Evidence suggests that children who abuse others may have suffered considerable disruption in their lives, been exposed to violence or abuse within the family, may have witnessed or been subject to Physical Abuse or Sexual Abuse, have problems in their educational development and may have committed other offences. Such children are likely to be Children in Need; some will have suffered Significant Harm and may be in need of protection themselves. Children who abuse others should be held responsible for their abusive behaviour while being identified and responded to in a way which meets their needs as well as protecting others.

Practitioners and carers - particularly those looking after children away from home - need clear guidance and training to enable them to distinguish between consenting, age appropriate peer relationships and those that are abusive or exploitative. Exploration during childhood is a normal part of development, and it is important that those working with children and families develop an understanding of age appropriate sexual behaviour.

Abusive sexual behaviours should not be mistakenly dismissed as "normal" simply because they take place between young people.

Children who display harmful sexual behaviour are often developing their own sexuality and understanding of relationships. Research clearly indicates that good assessment and early intervention, which addresses risk and builds resilience for the child produces the best outcomes for this kind of worrying behaviour.

Considerable diversity exists among children who display harmful sexual behaviours. This diversity applies to their own backgrounds and experiences, the motivations for and the meanings of their behaviours and needs. It is not inevitable that children who display harmful sexual behaviours will go on to perpetrate sexual abuse in adulthood. A number of factors indicate a higher risk and for this reason it is preferable that appropriate assessments are carried out on children to target resources at those most likely to present the highest risk.

Development Stages of Sexual Behaviour

These five stages described below are intended as a guide only.

0-4 years - Exploratory behaviours emerge – touch, taste, looking, hugs and kisses. Periods of inhibition and dis-inhibition occur e.g. wandering round naked. They imitate and copy behaviours of life around them including ‘mummies and daddies’ and ‘doctors and nurses’. Random masturbation can occur as this is a sensual stage in development. The distinction between toileting behaviours and comforting behaviours begins to emerge. Parents and carers are most influential, and children learn the social rules and what is permissible from them.

5-7 years - More exploratory behaviour with peers occurs, and there is comparison with others bodies and more questions. Masturbation is less random but more likely among boys due to gender socialisation. There is an increased desire for privacy. They know rude words and provoke reaction from adults although they might not understand the meanings. They are increasing their understanding of the taboos around sexual talk and behaviour. The influence of peers is beginning to emerge.

8-12 years - Cognitively children can understand and process information they gain, and they are learning about sex, procreation and bodies. Sexual language will have progressed and swear words will be learned and repeated although not necessarily with an understanding of the meaning. Myths about sex flourish at this age. The onset of puberty begins, with some young people will showing an interest in sexual activity at petting level. Competitive comparison of bodies begins. A few will progress on from petting. A development of anxiety about appearance and likeability occurs. Those who are gay or lesbian begin to define themselves as feeling different and will feel pressure to conform. Peers and media significant influence at this stage.

13-15 years - The beginning of the grown up phase. Young people are gaining fully developed adult bodies. Some may have practiced low level petting behaviours and some might be moving onto advanced sexual behaviours. Emotional romantic attachments become important. There is a pressure to be seen to be knowledgeable. Anxiety is still present about status and performance. Peers and media provide a strong influence, and young people can be embarrassed to discuss questions or concerns with adults.

16-18 years - Adult phase. Knowledge language and behaviours present are common. And there is competition with peers in these areas. The need for intimacy and emotional closeness is more important now. There is a return to the sensual stage - hugs and kisses reinforce attachments, along with sexual desire and pleasure.

Continuum of Sexual Behaviours from Healthy to Harmful

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 violent and abusive. (See Children and Young People with Harmful Sexual Behaviours, Research in Practice).

Not all sexual behaviours displayed by children are healthy; some are harmful and others fall within a mid - range (problematic) which are not the most worrying but nevertheless cause an issue. The term problematic is used to indicate behaviour that is problematic either for the child themselves or for someone else who is uncomfortable with the invasion of their personal space by a child or young person who has little sense of boundaries.

The following behaviours give a general indication of categories and are more applicable to younger children:

Healthy sexual behaviours are:

  • Mutual;
  • Consensual;
  • Exploratory and age appropriate;
  • No intent to cause harm;
  • Fun, humorous; and
  • No power differential between participants.

Problematic sexual behaviours are:

  • Not age appropriate - e.g. invasion of personal space, sexual swear word in very young children;
  • Some ‘one off’ incidents of low-key behaviours – e.g. touching over clothing;
  • Incidents where there is peer pressure to engage in the behaviour e.g. touching someone’s breast, exposure of bottom;
  • Behaviours which are spontaneous rather than planned;
  • Potentially self-directed such as masturbation;
  • Where there are other balancing factors such as lack of intent to cause harm, or a lack of understanding in the young person about the behaviours, or there is some remorse;
  • Where the child or young person targeted may be irritated or uncomfortable with the behaviour displayed but are not scared, and feel free to tell someone; and
  • Where there is parental concern about the behaviour, and parental interest in supporting the child to change.

Harmful sexual behaviours are:

  • Not age appropriate;
  • Those that involve elements of planning secrecy or force;
  • Those that involve power differentials between young people involved such as size status and strength;
  • Those where the targeted children feel fear, anxiety and / or discomfort;
  • Those which involve negative feelings being expressed by the young person when carrying out the behaviour e.g. anger aggression;
  • Where the young person does not take responsibility for the behaviour and blames others or feels a strong sense of grievance;
  • Where incidents are increasing in frequency and the young person’s interest in them is disproportionate to other aspects of their life; and
  • Where the young person is not easily distracted from the behaviour, it appears compulsive ad is persistent despite intervention.

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)

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


Problematic / Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour and when it becomes Harmful Sexual Behaviour

In respect of sexual behaviours, there are sometimes perceived to be difficulties in distinguishing between normal childhood sexual development and experimentation and sexually inappropriate behaviour. The indicators described in this document should be used as a guide only. Sometimes expert professional judgement will be needed. It is also important that when responding to incidents, professionals do not over-react to the presenting situation as this can have long term consequences for the child, e.g. becoming ashamed about their sexuality or closing down opportunities for them to develop and explore normal sexuality.

Guiding Principles

Managing harmful sexual behaviours involves three key principles:

  • There should be a co-ordinated multi agency approach including Youth Justice Services (where appropriate), Children's Social Care, education (including psychology) and Health (including Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and Police;
  • The needs of children and young people who abuse others should be considered separately from the needs of their victims; and
  • A multi-agency assessment should be carried out in each case, appreciating that these children may have considerable unmet developmental needs along with the specific needs arising from their behaviour.


Where an offence has been committed or Significant Harm is an issue this will include the Police and Children's Social Care.


When assessing children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour, key consideration will include as a minimum:

  • The nature and extent of the abusive behaviours;
  • The distinction between developmentally normal experimentation and sexually aggressive and inappropriate behaviour (Expert professional judgment may be required to assess this);
  • The context in which the abusive behaviour occurs;
  • The child's development recognising that areas of unmet developmental need, attachment problems, Special Educational Needs and disabilities may all be relevant in understanding the onset of and development of harmful sexual behaviour;
  • Family and social circumstances;
  • The need for services, particularly in relation to the harmful behaviours of the child as well as other significant needs;
  • The risks to self and others, including other children in the household, extended family, school, peer group or wider social network; and
  • What steps need to be taken or changes made to prevent further incident.

Reducing Risk

Risks are unlikely to be reduced unless:

  • The opportunities for and circumstances in which abuse occurs are prevented;
  • The child acknowledges the abusive behaviour and accepts responsibility (it is important to recognise that where there is initial denial, blaming of others by the young person can often be as part of a normal response to shame);
  • There is agreement both by the child and, where appropriate their family, to work with relevant agencies to address the problem; and
  • The agreed plans to address the problems are implemented by the relevant agencies in partnership with the child and their family.


Decision-making by agencies, according to their responsibilities, including where relevant the Crown Prosecution Service, requires consideration being given to:

  • The most appropriate course of action within the Youth Justice System if the child is above the age of criminal responsibility;
  • Whether the child or young person (perpetrator) themselves should be the subject of a Child Protection Conference;
  • What plan of action should be put in place to address the needs of the perpetrator, detailing the role and responsibility of each agency and how the plan will be monitored and reviewed;
  • What actions or steps may need to be taken to protect others from further abuse; and
  • The educational and accommodation or placement needs of the young abuser.

The decision to convene a Child Protection Conference in respect of the young abuser will be based on the consideration that they are suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm.

N.B. Even if the child is not considered to be suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm a multi-agency approach to managing the young abuser's needs, particularly if they are complex may be still be appropriate.

Protection and Action to be Taken

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. Concerns about the behaviour and the welfare and safety of the child/ren should be referred to Children's Social Care as set out in the Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure.

The Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted, June 2021) 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.

It is essential that all victims are reassured that their allegations are being taken seriously, and that they will be safeguarded. 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).

Children‘s Social Care will undertake an assessment and there will be a Strategy Meeting if the concerns are that a child has suffered, or is 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 Offending 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’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 child 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.

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 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 it will need to consider the child / both as individual who has perpetrated sexual harm and as a victim, and this should be made clear at the outset.

Children with inappropriate sexual or very violent behaviour who are re-entering the community following a custodial sentence or time in secure accommodation, or who move into an area from another local authority, require a multi-agency response (assessment/intervention) initiated at the earliest opportunity. Where a child who has been convicted of sexual offences involving the abuse of other children is then released into the community, MAPPA must be invoked.

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.

Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme

The Disclosure Scheme is focused on disclosure and risk management where the subject is identified as being convicted (including cautions, reprimands and final warnings) of child sexual offences (CSO). For the purposes of this scheme, a child sexual offence is defined as any offence listed under Schedule 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and where there is an inclusion on the Sex Offender Register.

Where the subject is a registered sex offender, the disclosure will be managed through the MAPPA process. Where the subject is not a registered sex offender, the disclosure will be managed through common law processes.

Where a disclosure is requested under this scheme for someone under 18 years old, consultation will be managed by the Youth Offender Risk Management Panel.

Issues in Undertaking Work with Young People and their Parents / Carers

Young people may be in denial about having a problem with their sexual behaviour and this may be reinforced by parents / carers 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 any proposed interventions if they are to encourage anyone to accept them. 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 and carers 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.

The reasons 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.

Young People who are Convicted of Sexual Offences

When a young person is charged with a sexual offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and attends court, the offence will, in the majority of cases, be considered a ‘grave crime’ (so serious that it may warrant a sentence over and above the maximum available in the youth court) and will be remitted to the Crown Court. When there is either a guilty plea or finding of guilt the local Youth Offending Team has a responsibility to complete a pre sentence report prior to sentencing. This report is informed via completion of the AssetPlus assessment tool which assesses risk of re-offending, risk of serious harm to others and vulnerability and identifies a multitude of factors and circumstances impacting on the young person’s offending, such as family relationships, substance use and emotional and mental health. At the point the court requests a pre-sentence report, good practice denotes that an Aim 3 assessment should be requested to inform the assessment and subsequent recommendation to the court.

Aim 3 Assessment

Aim 3 is an initial assessment model for young males between the ages of 12-18 who display harmful sexual behaviour. The model has not been designed or evaluated for use with females, children under 12 or those with learning disabilities. The assessment assesses strengths and concerns in relation to the four domains of:

  • Offence Specific issues - nature of sexual offending, attitude to victim, offence planning, use of violence, previous professional involvement, motivation to engage with professionals;
  • Developmental issues - early life experiences, behaviour, sexuality, health issues, resilience factors, experience of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect, experience of domestic abuse;
  • Family issues - level of family functioning, attitudes and beliefs, sexual boundaries, parental competence, current parent situation; and
  • Environment - opportunity for further offending, support networks, attitude of community toward the young man.

The model links with the Children's Social Care Assessment. Completion of the assessment is based on a weighted score. Upon completion a supervision level ranging from low-high management needs is formulated, dependent on the outcomes classified below:

  • High concern/Low strength (high risk);
  • High concern/High strength;
  • Low concern/low strength;
  • Low concern/high strength (low risk);

The process of gathering information to inform the assessment is lengthy and involves:

  • Accessing Police, health, education and Social Care records;
  • Speaking with all relevant professionals, including the YOT, Victim Liaison Officer or Victim Support;
  • Interviewing the relevant parents/carers/family members;
  • Interviewing the young person at least twice to gain information linked to the four domains above of their environment and family relationships, sexual knowledge and understanding, sexual preferences, attitude to the offence and level of planning.

Due to the sensitive nature of the work, engagement with the young person is of vital importance and requires creativity in obtaining and analysing information. Aim work is always completed by two trained professionals and involves one predominantly interviewing and the other taking notes and observing behaviour and body language.

Upon completion of the Aim 3 assessment a multi-agency meeting should be called in addition to the case being discussed at the YOT Risk Management Panel, to formulate a recommendation to the court and consider on-going intervention. In cases where there are high concerns and low strengths denoting high management needs and other health mental or emotional health concerns, more specialist agencies may be required to assess the young person and complete therapeutic intervention work.

Upon sentence, young people may, depending on their offence and sentence, be subject to Sex Offender Registration and Sexual Harm Prevention Orders or Sexual Risk Order. The orders are targeted at sexual offending and are designed to prevent the commission of acts or offences which would cause serious sexual harm to another person.

Amendments to this Chapter

In July 2022, a link to the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service was added into Further Information. The service offers support to professionals in England who are working with children and young people who are displaying harmful sexual behaviours.