Working with children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour: evidence based guidance for professionals working with children and young people

Guidance to support professionals who work with children and young people to identify, prevent and mitigate harm caused by children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful sexual behaviour is defined as:

sexual behaviour(s) expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others and/ or be abusive towards another child or young person.

Hackett, 2014.

This may include harmful sexual behaviour:

  • between similar-age children in the context of intimate relationships
  • between children within the same family between older and younger children online and/or face-to-face
  • in the context of gangs
  • including abuse that falls within the definition of child sexual exploitation
  • that does not involve victimisation, but may be developmentally harmful for the child (or harmful if it persisted over time).

Children and young people may be involved in sexual discussions or acts, whether directly or through the use of digital technology. This may include the sharing of images that are harmful to self and/or others, given their age or stage of development (Hollis et al., 2017).

Some children who harm may have been sexually harmed or experienced developmental abuse themselves. Many – although not all – will have unmet emotional needs, use coercion and aggression as coping strategies, have poor emotional regulation skills, have experienced pre-adolescent sexualisation, and/ or have unresolved trauma. Some may have developmental delay, intellectual impairment or be affected by neurodiversity, such as autism.

As with other forms of child sexual abuse, gendered disparities in perpetration and victimisation mean that harmful sexual behaviour is a form of gendered sexual violence. There is diversity here: some boys sexually abuse other boys, and some abuse both girls and boys, while a small proportion of harmful sexual behaviour is carried out by girls, targeting boys, girls, or both. However, the significant overrepresentation of boys causing the harm and girls experiencing the harm means that all efforts to tackle harmful sexual behaviour need to give consideration to it being a form of gender based violence.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, all those under the age of 18 – both a victim of harm as well as a child causing harm – must be seen as children first and foremost. All children have a right to nurture, respect, family life, education and social inclusion. These rights must be respected, even when their actions have caused considerable harm to others. Of course, incidents involving sexual abuse carried out by children may be serious crimes, and proportionate management of the genuine risks they present to others will be necessary. In child protection processes the primary professional consideration must be to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of all of the children involved.

Children and young people are developmentally different to adults and should be responded to as such. The vast majority of young people do not persist with these behaviours into adulthood.[1] Care should be taken in use of language, avoiding the labelling of young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour, and to ensure that approaches to working with this population are not stigmatising.

Children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour are a complex group with diverse needs which cannot be addressed by a ‘one size fits all’ model of service provision. Responses to children and young people’s harmful sexual behaviour should reflect that they are first and foremost children.



Back to top