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 behaviour and use of traffic light tools

There are currently two available tools for practitioners in Scotland that categorise a range of sexual behaviours between infancy and adulthood. The tools use a traffic light analogy to categorise children’s sexual behaviours as green, amber or red indicating their increasing seriousness.

  • Green behaviours are those that are considered developmentally appropriate.
  • Amber behaviours have the potential to be outside of safe and healthy behaviour. Adults need to take notice of such behaviours and gather information to consider appropriate action
  • Red behaviours fall outside of safe and healthy behaviour and are likely to warrant a professional assessment and response by a lead professional

The tools can help professionals make decisions about safeguarding children and young people, and assist them in assessing and responding appropriately to sexual behaviour in children and young people. They are a visual way of helping parents and carers understand and respond to sexual behaviour amongst children. They also promote understanding of healthy sexual development and distinguish it from harmful behaviour.

The tools are:

Stop It Now! Traffic Light Tools

(free of charge) tools.htm

Brook Traffic Light tool

(cost attached) professional-training/sexual-behaviours-traffic- light-tool/. [2]

Either of these tools, in tandem with the continuum of sexual behaviours described below can be used to determine whether a child has needs that can be met by universal services or whether more targeted support is required. An example drawn from the Stop It Now! traffic light tool for teenagers is at the end of this section.

Importantly both tools separate out children and young people into distinct age categories and provide indicative examples of green, amber and red behaviours at each developmental stage. The tools provide a good model for professionals to come together to share and locate their concerns about a particular child using a common language.

Chronological age is often a helpful start point for categorising behaviour. There may be times when chronological age in itself is not sufficient to help guide determinations about what is normal versus what is harmful sexual behaviour. Sexual development can be affected by a range of factors and so cannot be considered absolute.

When considering appropriate sexual behaviour, professionals should be guided by chronological age as well as any other relevant factors, while recognising the importance of seeing the young person as an individual in their own right.

Always consider the child’s safeguarding concerns and holistic needs alongside any sexualised behaviour and follow due procedures accordingly. Traffic light tools support decision making about a child or young person’s sexual behaviour and do not replace professional judgement or policy and legislation. If you have concerns, doubts or uncertainties about how a child’s behaviour sits within a wider child development context it is best to seek further advice. There will be some situations where it will remain unclear to practitioners as to whether a pattern of behaviour is abusive or within developmental milestones and this may warrant referral and consultation with specialist services such as the Interventions for Vulnerable Youth Service or discussion with a child protection hotline such as Stop it Now! to explore the behaviour and gather opinions on steps forward.

As set out in the National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland, in all cases where a child or young person displays sexual behaviour that may cause harm, immediate consideration should be given as to whether action should be taken under child protection procedures, in order both to protect children harmed or at risk of harm by the behaviour and to address any child protection concerns that may at least in part explain why the child/young person has behaved in such a way. Where concerns are assessed to be below the threshold of significant harm towards or caused by a child, there may still be a need for co-ordinated assessment and support to address the needs underpinning troubled or troubling behaviour.

Parents Protect Traffic Light Tool – Teenage Sexual Behaviour (13-18)

Green behaviours might be expected for the child’s age and stage of development. They give an opportunity to support and talk to the child about what is appropriate. They are not necessarily behaviours that adults would like a child to continue with and discussing the behaviour may offer “teachable” moments in relation to health, sexual and relational development.

Amber behaviours are concerning and might be harmful for a teenager. There may be a sign that the child needs extra guidance and support from trusted adults, particularly if issues continue over time. Talking with the child about the concerns might help you find ways to keep them and others safe.

Red behaviours are unsafe and might involve abuse or exploitation. They are likely to cause harm to the child, and maybe others around them. These behaviours need to be dealt with quickly, which might require support from statutory services such as social work.


  • Occasionally making light hearted sexual jokes with friends of a similar age
  • Flirting or sending sexual images to someone the same age, if both consent
  • Asking questions about sex and relationships
  • Looking at online information about sex and relationships
  • Masturbating at home, when alone in a private space
  • Showing affection and experiencing physical intimacy, such as kissing, hugging and holding hands
  • Sexual activity, including sexual touch, oral sex and penetrative sex amongst older consenting teenagers
  • Not having sexual feelings or choosing not to experiment sexually


  • Choosing to spend time viewing sexual pictures and videos over other hobbies and interests they enjoy
  • Sending pornography to others
  • Using overly sexualised language
  • Exploring extreme sexual fetishes, involving physical harm or illegal behaviour
  • Seeking sexual advice from untrustworthy sources such as pornography or unmoderated forums
  • Willingly engaging in sexual activity with someone of a similar age during early adolescence
  • Sharing sexual pictures or videos of themselves with someone of a similar age. This might be common, but can be risky and it is illegal to possess, make or share a sexual picture or video of someone under 18


  • Taking or sharing sexual pictures of someone without their consent
  • Having sexual conversations or sharing sexual images with children much younger than themselves or with those that are particularly vulnerable
  • Pressuring other young people or children to do sexual things online or offline, using threats, force, constant hassling or other types of manipulation
  • Having sexual interactions with strangers (adults or other young people) online or offline
  • Looking at illegal sexual material, for example involving animals, children or extreme violence
  • Having sexual contact with an animal
  • Exposing their genitals in public or sending unsolicited pictures of their genitals to others



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