How to manage incidents of harmful sexual behaviour

Last updated: 08 Nov 2021
Introduction

If a child is displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour (PSB or HSB), it can be difficult to know how to respond so that you are balancing the needs of everyone involved.

You need to act appropriately to support and protect any children who have displayed PSB or HSB and those who have been impacted by the behaviour.

> Learn more about identifying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour

We’ve put together information to help you and your organisation:
  • understand how to manage incidents of PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse
  • support children who have been impacted by PSB or HSB, or experienced peer-on-peer sexual abuse
  • support children who have displayed PSB or HSB.

 

How to prevent harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people

Find out more about how organisations can take action to prevent problematic or harmful sexual behaviour from happening.

Read more

Reporting incidents

Reporting incidents of PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse

If a child is displaying problematic or harmful sexualised behaviour it's important to take immediate action to:
  • prevent the behaviour from escalating
  • keep everyone involved safe.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999.

Once you are sure everyone is safe, you should follow your organisational policies and procedures.

> Read more about taking action to keep all children safe following an allegation against a child

If you're worried that a child has displayed or experienced PSB, HSB or peer-on-peer abuse but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures, including sharing concerns with your nominated child protection lead. Your organisation should have policies and procedures for responding to incidents of problematic, harmful or abusive sexual behaviour.
  • Report to the police as appropriate (for example, if an allegation of rape, sexual assault or sexual offence is made). This should happen alongside a making a referral to children’s social care, following local authority guidelines.
  • Contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice.
  • Contact the Report Abuse in Education helpline if you work in a school setting on 0800 136 663 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.

Schools

There is specific guidance for schools in each UK nation, which sets out how you should respond to incidents of PSB or HSB.

> Read our summary of the guidance for schools on HSB

> Take our online training about managing incidents of HSB in schools

Multi-agency responses

Your nominated child protection lead should share information with relevant agencies and work with them to protect and support all the children involved in an incident of PSB or HSB. This includes reporting the incident to children’s social care and the police if necessary.

Local areas can use our Harmful sexual behaviour framework to develop a coordinated, evidence-based multi-agency response to HSB.

> Have a look at the Harmful sexual behaviour framework

Recording incidents

Recording incidents

You should keep detailed records about any incidents of problematic or harmful sexual behaviour (PSB or HSB). This will make it easier to identify any changes or patterns in a child's behaviour that might be cause for concern, and help ensure the child gets the right support.

Any member of staff or volunteer who witnesses or is concerned about sexualised behaviour should make a detailed record of what happened and share it with your nominated child protection lead.

The record should include:

  • the date and time
  • what was happening before the incident took place
  • specific details of the behaviour – avoid generalised terms such as 'inappropriate touch'
  • any power imbalance between the children involved
  • whether the behaviour appeared spontaneous or premeditated
  • any coercion, force or secrecy involved
  • whether the behaviour was consensual
  • how any other children involved reacted (make sure the children are not named or identifiable in your record).

Your nominated child protection lead should also keep a record of how your organisation has responded to any incidents of problematic or harmful sexualised behaviour. Make sure the record includes:

  • the child's age (date of birth) and stage of development
  • any specific vulnerabilities they have (for example if they have a disability or are in care) 
  • any other behavioural concerns
  • any other known incidents of sexualised behaviour
  • details of the incident or incidents
  • the child's view of what happened – in their own words if possible
  • information about any other factors which might be contributing to the behaviour
  • what action you have taken 
  • the parents' view of what happened – how did they react and what support do they need?
  • what support have you provided to the child and their family?

> Find out more about how to record sexualised behaviour in our online course for schools

> Get advice on how to store child protection records securely

Monitoring

Your organisation should regularly analyse any reports about PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse. This will help you understand any patterns and put preventive measures in place.

> Find out more about preventing harmful sexual behaviour

Children affected by HSB

Supporting children who have witnessed or experienced HSB

It's not always easy for children and young people to speak out if they have witnessed or experienced problematic sexual behaviour (PSB), harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) or peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

They may be afraid of:

  • being considered a ‘snitch’
  • getting in trouble
  • how other people might respond
  • losing their privacy
  • their parents being informed
(Contextual Safeguarding Network, 20201).

This means it’s vital for adults who work or volunteer with children to be able to recognise and respond to any concerns.

Signs to look out for

A child or young person who has experienced PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse might appear withdrawn, frightened or begin to act differently from usual. There might also be physical signs such as bruising, bleeding or noticeable discomfort in the genital or anal area.

> Learn more about recognising the signs of sexual abuse

Responding to a disclosure

If a child tells you they have experienced PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse, or seen something that has made them uncomfortable, you should listen carefully to what they are saying and reassure them that you are taking them seriously.

Include the child in any decisions that affect them, and take their needs and wishes into account.

> Read our tips on how to make sure children always feel listened to

Confidentiality

Never promise a child that you will keep the things they’re telling you a secret. Explain that you need to share what they’ve told you with someone who will be able to help.

All children and young people can contact Childline if they would like confidential advice and support. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get information and advice on the Childline website.

> Download Childline posters and wallet cards to display in your school

Children who have witnessed or experienced sexual abuse and harassment in school can also contact the Report Abuse in Education Helpline on 0800 136 663 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk.

Providing support

Every child who has been affected by problematic or harmful sexual behaviour should receive short- and long-term support.

Intermediate support

You should consider what immediate support the child needs. This should be proportionate to the behaviour they have experienced. It might include:

  • reassuring them that they aren’t in trouble
  • having a discussion about what happened
  • providing appropriate medical treatment
  • making sure they don’t have to come into contact with the child who has displayed abusive behaviour.

Longer term support

In the longer term, you should think about how best to help children recover from the trauma of what they have experienced. This might take time as they process what’s happened to them. Things you can do include:

  • asking children what support they would like 
  • putting measures in place to help children feel safe
  • making a referral for therapeutic support
  • working with other agencies such as children’s social care to provide multi-agency support.

> Find out more about supporting a child who has been sexually abused

Supporting friends and witnesses

Some children might have seen problematic or harmful sexual behaviour taking place, or be friends with someone involved. They might need support to understand and come to terms with what’s happened.

Explain why the behaviour was inappropriate and harmful and give them time to process what’s happened and ask questions. Make sure they have ongoing opportunities to talk to a trusted adult about anything that’s confusing or worrying them.

> Find out more about talking to children about problematic or harmful sexual behaviour

Working with parents and carers

You should tell parents and carers that their child has been impacted by peer-on-peer abuse, as long as this doesn’t put the child at risk of further harm.

Explain what measures you are taking to keep children safe, and give parents opportunities to ask questions. Think about how you can best help parents and carers protect and support their child. You might want to get advice from other local agencies such as your local children’s care services.

> Find out more about supporting parents and carers

References

Contextual Safeguarding Network (2020) Beyond referrals: harmful sexual behaviour in schools (PDF). Bedfordshire: Contextual Safeguarding Network.
Children who have displayed HSB or PSB

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

Complex needs

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

(Rich, 20114).

> 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

Sanctions

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

Assessment

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

Providing support

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).

Safety planning

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

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.

References

Hackett et al (2013) Individual, family and abuse characteristics of 700 British child and adolescent sexual abusers. Child Abuse Review, 22(4): pp. 232–245.
Ringrose, J. et al (2012) A qualitative study of children, young people and 'sexting': a report prepared for the NSPCC (PDF). London: NSPCC.
Hollis, V. (2017) The profile of the children and young people accessing an NSPCC service for harmful sexual behaviour: summary report. [London]: NSPCC.
Rich, P. (2011) Understanding, assessing and rehabilitating juvenile sexual offenders. 2nd edn. New Jersey: Wiley.
Hackett, S., Branigan, P. and Holmes, D. (2019) Operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. Second Edition. London: NSPCC.
Hollis, V. and Belton, E. (2017) Children and young people who engage in technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour: a study of their behaviours, backgrounds and characteristics. [London]: NSPCC.
Hackett, S., Branigan, P. and Holmes, D. (2019) Operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. Second Edition. London: NSPCC.
Hackett, S., Branigan, P. and Holmes, D. (2019) Operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. Second Edition. London: NSPCC.
Hackett, S., Branigan, P. and Holmes, D. (2019) Operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. Second Edition. London: NSPCC.
Walker, L. and Laugharne, C. (2016) Helping children to learn about safer sexual behaviour: taking steps to safety: a guide book. London: Speechmark.
Mickshik, J. and Sam, H. (2016) The gift: a guide to treating children and young people with problematic sexual behaviour. NOTA news, 78: 11-12.
Belton, E. (2017) Turn the Page: manualised treatment programme: final evaluation report. [London]: NSPCC.
Rogers, E. (2016) A serene setting to address harmful sexual behaviour. Children and young people now, 19 July-1 August: 20-22.
Belton, E. (2017) Turn the Page: manualised treatment programme: final evaluation report. [London]: NSPCC.
Belton, E. (2017) Turn the Page: manualised treatment programme: final evaluation report. [London]: NSPCC.