Supporting children who have displayed HSB or PSB
You should balance the duty to safeguard children who have experienced abuse with the need to support children who have displayed problematic sexual behaviour (PSB) or harmful sexual behaviour (HSB).
Why do children who have displayed PSB or HSB need support?
Many children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour have experienced abuse or trauma (Hackett et al, 20131).
Children who have been sexually abused may not know that what has happened to them is wrong.
This can lead to them displaying harmful sexual behaviours towards others (Ringrose et al, 20122).
It’s vital to follow your organisation’s safeguarding and child protection procedures if you are concerned that a child has displayed problematic, harmful or abusive sexual behaviour.
> Find out how to decide if a child is displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour
Children and young people who display HSB can have complex needs (Hollis, 20173). So it’s important to work with a range of agencies to provide holistic support that is tailored to each individual child’s needs.
For example, children who display HSB might:
- struggle to regulate and express their emotions appropriately
- experience social anxiety
- struggle to understand or comply with 'rules' for social behaviour
- find it difficult to empathise with others and respond to other people’s needs
- find it hard to build secure and confident relationships with others
- struggle to understand and respect personal boundaries
> See what data and statistics are available around HSB
> Read more about adolescent HSB in our How safe are our children? report for 2020
> Find out more about multi-agency working to support children who display PSB or HSB
Talking to a child who has displayed problematic or harmful sexual behaviour
Children and young people who display PSB or HSB don’t always realise that their behaviour is inappropriate. It might be distressing for them to realise that they have behaved in a way that has upset or harmed someone else.
You should talk and listen calmly. Avoid using language that may make the child or young person feel judged or criminalised.
> Read more about talking to a child who might have behaved abusively
You should never promise to keep anything a child tells you a secret. Explain that you need to talk to someone else who can help.
If a child who has displayed problematic or harmful sexual behaviour wants to talk confidentially, they can contact Childline on 0800 1111, online or get information and advice on the Childline website. Calls to Childline are free.
> Download and print Childline posters and wallet cards
Each incident of PSB or HSB will be different. You should gather the facts, assess any risks and make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Any sanctions should be proportionate to the behaviour being displayed and in line with your organisation’s code of conduct and behaviour policy.
> Find out how having a code of conduct can help prevent PSB or HSB
Children and young people who display PSB or HSB should be referred through your local multi-agency arrangements, so that a trained practitioner can assess their needs.
Trained practitioners should use a mix of specialist HSB and generic risk assessment tools to help them consider each child's developmental history, family background and any broader child protection concerns (Hackett, Branigan and Holmes, 20195).
Assessments should consider both online and offline behaviours together (Hollis and Belton, 20176).
> Listen to our episode on assessing sexualised behaviour
When deciding what support is most appropriate for a child displaying PSB or HSB, practitioners should consider:
- the child's age
- the child’s stage of development
- the level of risk and need
(Hackett, Branigan and Holmes, 20197).
For example, some children and young people's needs can be met through parental monitoring and work on positive social behaviour, while others need therapeutic support and specialist services (Hackett, Branigan and Holmes, 20198).
A safety plan helps you identify any risks posed to or by a child who has displayed PSB or HSB, and put measures in place to help keep them and other children safe.
You should include the child and their support network in developing the plan, and make sure it is proportionate to the behaviour being displayed.
You should review the safety plan regularly so that you can monitor progress and address any changing risks or concerns.
> Find out how to develop a safety plan in our online course on managing HSB in schools
Therapeutic support for children who display PSB or HSB should be holistic, using a range of responses tailored to each child.
In general, it's important to promote stable and supportive relationships, self-awareness, self-management and a healthy lifestyle.
Interventions for HSB should:
- build on the skills and ability the child or young person has
- create an environment where young people feel safe to talk
- address issues within the whole context of the young person’s life as well as working individually with them
- identify factors that improve a young person's strengths and enabling them to understand what influences their behaviours
- use professional networks to make best use of different people’s expertise
(Hackett, Branigan and Holmes, 20199).
Some useful strategies in direct work include:
- narrative techniques to allow children who display HSB to create space between themselves and the problem, and evaluate their position (Walker and Laugharne, 201610)
- metaphor/visual techniques to help children understand complex ideas relating to sex and sexuality while minimising feelings of shame and embarrassment (Mickshik and Sam, 201611)
- practical strategies to help children and young people manage their behaviour (Belton, 201712)
- social skills development to help children and young people apply the concepts of socially acceptable behaviour in practice — for example learning when it is appropriate to have physical contact by hugging someone (Rogers, 201613).
Consider what support you need to put in place after a therapeutic programme finishes. Having ongoing support in place will help young people who display HSB to continue using the techniques they have been taught (Belton, 201714).
Services to help children
Our Turn the Page service helps children and young people understand and manage their own harmful sexual behaviour. The service focuses on strengths, to help children and young people feel better about themselves and learn to handle problems positively. It also includes families in the therapeutic process, to encourage moving on from the harmful sexual behaviour together.
> Find out more about Turn the Page
Our National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCATS) is a national service that provides consultations, assessments and a range of specialist interventions for children and young people displaying HSB. We can also provide tailored training to social care.
> Find out more about NCATS
Supporting parents and carers
As long as it doesn’t put a child at risk of harm, you should talk to parents and carers about the sexualised behaviour their child has been displaying and the support you are putting in place.
> Read about communicating with parents and carers if there's been an allegation of abuse against their child
Parents and carers will also need support alongside the therapeutic service for children and young people (Belton, 201712). This might include helping them understand the behaviour their child has displayed and teaching them techniques to support their child.