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

Understanding children’s sexual behaviour

Knowing how to recognise and respond to age-appropriate behaviours in children and young people at different ages helps to support the development of healthy sexual behaviour and protect children from harm or abuse.

Children progress through different stages of development as they grow. Each child is an individual and will develop in their own way. But research tells us there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage. Our understanding of children’s sexual behaviour therefore needs to draw on child development. Context is vitally important: some behaviours are expected if they are demonstrated in pre-adolescent children but are concerning if they continue into adolescence. Other behaviours, by contrast, are considered a normal part of the development of adolescents but would be highly unusual in pre-adolescent children. Sometimes sexual behaviour displayed by younger children can be mistakenly identified as abusive when adults presuppose sexual motivations and the behaviour is driven by exploration or comfort seeking.

Typical sexual development for children at primary school age and younger

Natural and healthy sexual exploration during childhood is an information-gathering process wherein children explore each other’s and their own bodies by looking and touching (e.g. playing doctor), as well as exploring gender roles and behaviours (e.g. playing house). Children involved in normal sexual play are generally of similar age, size and developmental status and participate on a voluntary basis. While siblings engage in mutual sexual exploration, most sexual play is between children who have an ongoing mutually enjoyable play and/or school friendship. The sexual behaviours are limited in type and frequency and occur in several periods of the child’s life. The child’s interest in sex and sexuality is balanced by curiosity about other aspects of his or her life … The feelings of the children regarding the sexual behaviour are generally light-hearted and spontaneous

Johnson, 2015.

Typical adolescent sexual behaviour

Many marked changes related to size, shape and functioning of the emotional, cognitive and interpersonal relationships occur as adolescents make the transition from pre-adolescence... Structural changes related to sexual development include growth of the penis and testes and lengthening of the vagina. With the onset of puberty youth experience changes related to reproduction: girls experience menstruation, boys begin to produce seminal fluids and ejaculation occurs. As physical and structural changes take place, adolescence is a time when many young men and women encounter their first interpersonal sexual experiences … Sexual interest, sexual arousal, kissing, sexual intercourse and oral sex are also considered normal or normative for adolescents … (sexual) interactions prior to puberty tend to be more exploratory and social. After puberty behaviours such as kissing, flirting and foreplay (touching, fondling) are more goal orientated towards intimacy, sexual arousal and orgasm

Araji, 2004, pp. 20–2.

Children internalise societal norms and values, and sexual and relational development for boys and girls differ. Implicit as well as explicit social attitudes of what is accepted and acceptable create the foundation for relationships. A gender lens allows us to consider the impact of societal and cultural gender norms on children and young people’s understanding of – and expectations about – sexual relationships and behaviours.

The lens of other characteristics, such as religion, disability, race and being LGBTQI+ also have bearing on social, relational and sexual development. For instance LGBTQI+ youth are often isolated from peers and family members and have limited accessibility to share feelings and emotions around sex and sexual attraction, leading to feelings of isolation and at times this may drive a need to access outlets that give an inaccurate or unhealthy informant of their sexual needs or identity.

Harmful sexual behaviour therefore needs to be understood within the broader concept of sexual socialisation – how children learn about sex. Children and young people exist and live within a social and cultural context which often reflects gender stereotypes, sexism, sexual objectification, and attitudes which support violence.

Increasingly unhealthy depictions of sexual relationships and behaviours across society are amplified by pornography, social media and online gaming platforms. There is a children’s rights aspect to this issue: Article 17 of the UNCRC says that children and young people should be protected from media that would be harmful to them – this includes pornography.

Applying a gender lens to sexual socialisation can help to inform interventions and prevention initiatives. Interventions in particular need to offer opportunities to unpack and unlearn problematic messages that young people have learned, and be given space to explore positive sexuality; how all genders can have healthy and fruitful friendships and relationships, sexual or not sexual, romantic or not romantic.



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