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

Preventing harmful sexual behaviour in childhood and adolescence

The majority of sexual abuse is not disclosed during childhood and therefore does not come to the attention of services[5]. Most harmful sexual behaviour will not, therefore, be prevented by interventions focused on children who have already displayed this behaviour. As well as identifying and responding to harmful sexual behaviour, we need effective and evidence driven approaches to preventing it before it happens

Effective preventative approaches depend on:

  • Professionals involved in preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour should have an understanding, appropriate to their involvement with children and young people, of the causes, the circumstances that allow it to happen and to be alert to the emergence of new threats.
  • Prevention of harmful sexual behaviour is everyone’s business. From teachers involved with the rolling out of effective and inclusive relationship, sexual health and parenthood education, to police and social workers responding to child protection and child welfare concerns, to parents being able to have a conversation with their teenagers about the influences of social media and pornography on adolescent sexual development, all of us have a part to play in preventing abuse before it happens.
  • Adults in day to day contact with children and young people, in family, early learning, school and recreational settings, should have the knowledge, competence and confidence to take the right actions, at the right time, to identify and minimise risks; and to respond swiftly and appropriately if it seems harm is occurring.
  • Children and young people should be given the information about potential sources of harm, how best to keep themselves safe; and, if they feel at risk, what to do and who to turn to for help and what they should do if they are worried about their own thoughts, feelings or behaviours, or those of someone else.


As with any behaviours, children and young people need guidance and support to follow a positive path. This will involve developing healthy attitudes to sex and relationships and learning to live healthy, harm free lives. We need to protect young people from both experiencing and carrying out sexual harm.

Rather than only focusing on harmful sexual behaviours after they occur, early steps in prevention of harm and the promotion of healthy attitudes and behaviours around sex is crucial, as is understanding what is meant by sexual harm.

One of the first things we can do from an early age with children is to talk to them in positive, open ways about what is ok and not ok. Children need to learn what behaviours are harmful and why. Much like violent or aggressive behaviours, children need guidance around sexual behaviours. Parents can find sex tricky to talk to children about. In order to prevent harm we need to promote healthy and appropriate behaviours. There are several resources available for parents including The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) and the NSPCC’s “the underwear rule”.

Prevention in schools

The Curriculum for excellence recognises that all children and young people have a right to learn about their growing bodies, relationships, sexuality, sexual health and parenthood in ways that are appropriate to their age and stage of development. This is central to the prevention of harmful sexual behaviour.

The National Sexual Violence Prevention Programme was developed by Rape Crisis in 2012 following extensive consultation of relevant literature and consultation with partner agencies, and is regularly updated including through consultation with young people. The external evaluation in 2015 indicated it was highly successful in improving young people’s knowledge and attitudes in relation to sexual violence. It supports young people to develop equal, mutual and consensual relationships by:

  • exploring the influence of gendered norms, attitudes and behavioural expectations, including the role of pornography and sexualised media in shaping these; learning about the wide-ranging impacts of sexual violence including trauma, developing empathy and replacing myths and victim- blaming narratives with accurate information;
  • understanding what the law says about forms of sexual violence, consent and issues relating to sexual images;
  • building young people’s capacity and skills for consensual and mutual sexual relationships and for positive social change; and,
  • using a range of scenarios and examples which demonstrate different forms of violence, reflect compound power dynamics and include diverse groups of young people.

Equally Safe at School (ESAS) has been developed by Rape Crisis Scotland in partnership with the University of Glasgow. It was designed and piloted in several schools in Scotland with support from Zero Tolerance and a wide range of other voluntary and statutory partners and stakeholders.

It is designed for secondary schools to take a holistic approach to preventing gender based violence, consistent with the Scottish Government’s and COSLA’s Equally Safe strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. ESAS is also designed to meet the health and wellbeing outcomes of the Curriculum for Excellence and other key frameworks such as Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC). ESAS takes a whole school approach, working with staff and students to prevent gender based violence and to increase confidence and skills in responding to incidents and disclosures of such violence. It aims to positively influence the school culture by fostering a shared, consistent approach to gender based violence. ESAS is underpinned by principles of equality, safety and accessibility, with student voices at the forefront.

Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) is a schools based peer mentoring leadership programme for young people. It gives young people the chance to explore and challenge the attitudes, beliefs and cultural norms that underpin gender based violence.

It addresses a range of behaviours including harmful sexual behaviour, sexting, controlling behaviour, sexual harassment and consent, and uses a ‘bystander’ approach where individuals are not looked on as potential victims or perpetrators but as empowered and active bystanders with the ability to support and challenge their peers in a safe way. A strong emphasis has been placed on building healthy, respectful relationships both in the school and in the community.


Upstream is an online resource developed by The Lucy Faithfull Foundation and the Scottish Government to help adults in Scotland to prevent child sexual abuse including harmful sexual behaviour. It is designed as a one-stop place for people to access advice and support. It contains resources for parents about preventing harmful sexual behaviour in childhood and adolescence and resources for professionals, including sections on safeguarding in education, residential care settings, sports coaching settings and within faith and belief communities. It also has materials for those delivering training on the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Contextual Safeguarding

Contextual safeguarding recognises that, as young people grow and develop, they are influenced by a whole range of environments and people outside of their family. For example in school or college, in the local community, in their peer groups or online. Children and young people may encounter risk in any of these environments often caused by peers as much as by adults. Sometimes the different contexts are inter- related and can mean that children and young people may encounter multiple risks. Contextual safeguarding looks at how we can best understand these risks, engage with children and young people and help to keep them safe. It’s an approach that’s often been used to apply to adolescents, though the lessons can equally be applied to younger children, especially in today’s changing world. Further information on the approach can be found at the University of Durham’s contextual safeguarding website, including their resources on preventing peer on peer sexual violence in school settings. The scale up tool kit includes resources for professionals in different settings, including materials on context weighting - what context (or contextual factor) needs to change first for safety to increase for that child, family or peer group.



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