Understanding sexualised behaviour in children

Last updated: 08 Nov 2021
Introduction

Children and young people typically display a range of sexualised behaviours as they grow up. However some may display problematic or abusive sexualised behaviour. This is harmful to the children who display it as well as the people it's directed towards.

Everyone who works or volunteers with children should be able to distinguish developmentally typical sexual behaviour from sexual behaviours that are problematic or harmful. This will help you respond appropriately and provide children and young people with the right protection and support.

We've put together four steps to help you decide what kind of sexualised behaviour a child or young person is displaying so you can respond in the right way.

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

 

1. Hackett continuum

Step one: understanding Hackett’s sexualised behaviour continuum

Hackett's continuum presents sexualised behaviour as a range from 'normal' to 'inappropriate', 'problematic', 'abusive' and 'violent' (Hackett, 20101).

Developmentally typical, problematic, harmful | Hacket Continuum > Normal, inappropriate, problematic, abusive, violent

Developmentally typical (green) behaviours

At the NSPCC, we use the term ‘developmentally typical’ to describe behaviours that are green on the continuum – but you might also hear green behaviours called ‘healthy’, ‘normal’ or ‘developmentally expected’.

Green sexual behaviour:

  • is developmentally expected and socially acceptable
  • is consensual, mutual and reciprocal
  • involves shared decision making.

> Find out more about developmentally typical sexual behaviour for different age ranges

Watch: What are developmentally typical (green) behaviours?

Problematic (amber) behaviours

At the NSPCC, we use ‘problematic sexual behaviour’ (PSB) as an umbrella term for all amber behaviours.  On the Hackett continuum, amber behaviours are described as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘problematic’.

Inappropriate behaviour

  • Single instances of developmentally inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  • Behaviour that is socially acceptable within a peer group but would be considered inappropriate outside that group.
  • Generally consensual and reciprocal.
  • May involve an inappropriate context for behaviour that would otherwise be considered normal.

Problematic behaviour

  • Developmentally unusual and socially unexpected behaviour.
  • May be compulsive.
  • Consent may be unclear and the behaviour may not be reciprocal.
  • May involve an imbalance of power.
  • Doesn't have an overt element of victimisation.

Watch: What are problematic (amber) behaviours?

Harmful (red) behaviours

Red sexualised behaviours are harmful to the child who displays them, as well as the people the behaviour is displayed towards. At the NSPCC, we refer to all red sexual behaviours as ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ (HSB). Hackett divides these into 'abusive' and 'violent' behaviours.

Abusive behaviour

  • Intrusive behaviour.
  • May involve a misuse of power.
  • May have an element of victimisation.
  • May use coercion and force.
  • May include elements of expressive violence.
  • Informed consent has not been given (or the victim was not able to consent freely).

Violent behaviour

  • Physically violent sexual abuse.
  • Highly intrusive.
  • May involve instrumental violence which is physiologically and/or sexually arousing to the perpetrator.
  • May involve sadism.

Watch: What are harmful sexual (red) behaviours?

If you have a concern about a child and you work in an education setting, you can call our Report Abuse in Education Helpline at 0800 136 663 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

Work in a different sector? Contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

Printable continuum guide

In partnership with Hackett, Durham University and NHS Health Education England, we've created a quick printable guide to help you remember how to recognise sexualised behaviour.

> Download the quick guide (PDF)

References

Hackett, S. (2010) Children, young people and sexual violence. In Barter, C and Berridge, D (eds) Children behaving badly? exploring peer violence between children and young people. London: Blackwell Wiley.
2. Identify the behaviour

Step two: identifying sexualised behaviour

In order to respond appropriately to a child displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour, you need to decide where a child’s behaviour sits on the continuum.

A child's behaviour can change depending on the circumstances they are in and sexual behaviour can move in either direction along the continuum. So you should look at each situation individually, as well as considering any patterns of behaviour.

Indicators that behaviour is problematic or harmful

Children naturally explore and experiment with their sexuality as they grow up. If the behaviour seems to go beyond curiosity, for example if it is obsessive or compulsive, this might indicate it is problematic or harmful.

> Find out more about what is considered developmentally typical sexual behaviour

What to consider

The age of the child or young person who has displayed the sexual behaviour.
As children grow up they develop sexually. What is developmentally typical sexual behaviour for a 15-year-old may be problematic or harmful for an eight-year-old. Consider the child's developmental ability as well as their chronological age.

The age of the other children or young people involved.
If the children involved are the same age or developmental ability the behaviour may be considered developmentally typical. But if the children are of different ages or developmental abilities, the behaviour might be problematic or harmful.

Is the behaviour unusual for that particular child or young person?
If a child's behaviour is out of character, it's important to take time to consider why the child is behaving unusually.

Have all the children or young people involved freely given consent?
If the behaviour involves coercion, intimidation or forcing others to take part, it should be considered harmful.

Are the other children or young people distressed?
If the behaviour is upsetting others, this could indicate it is problematic or harmful.

Is there an imbalance of power?
If the child displaying the behaviour is in a more powerful position than the other children involved, this indicates it is problematic or harmful. This might happen if there are significant differences in age, size, power or developmental ability.

Is the behaviour excessive, degrading or threatening?
Excessive behaviour means behaviour that is obsessive, persistent, compulsive or has been going on for a long time. Any behaviour that involves force, coercion, bribery or threats is harmful.

Is the behaviour occurring in a public or private space?
Some behaviours, for example masturbation, might be considered developmentally typical if they are being carried out in private. But if they are being displayed in public, they would be considered problematic or harmful.

Other behaviours might give cause for concern if they are particularly secretive or are being carried out in private after intervention from adults.

Watch: deciding where a child’s sexualised behaviour sits on the Hackett continuum

3. Take action

Step three: taking appropriate action

Your response to a child displaying sexualised behaviours should vary depending on:

  • the child's age
  • their stage of development
  • where their behaviours sits on Hackett's sexualised behaviour continuum.

Your approach should focus on the needs of the children involved at all times.

Developmentally typical (green) behaviours

It's normal for children to be curious about their own and other people's bodies. The process of experimentation and exploration mean that children and young people might get it wrong from time to time but this doesn't necessarily indicate a serious concern.

> Learn more about developmentally typical sexual behaviours

How to respond

  • Listen to what children and young people have to say and respond calmly and non-judgementally.
  • Talk to children about sexual development and healthy relationships. This might include having discussions with older children and young people about behaving responsibly and safely (for example, two 15-year-olds having consensual sex might benefit from a conversation about contraception and consent).
  • Talk to parents and carers about developmentally typical sexualised behaviours and explain how they can have discussions about appropriate sexual behaviour with their children.
  • Let children and young people know they can always talk to you if they are ever worried about anything.
  • Remind children and young people they can contact Childline if they need confidential help and advice. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get information and advice on the Childline website. You can download or order Childline posters and wallet cards to keep on display and give to children and young people.
  • Talk to your nominated child protection lead if you’re unsure or have any concerns. Sharing information can help to identify any patterns or escalation of behaviour. If you are a lone worker or have concerns you can always call the NSPCC helpline for advice and support on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk

> Use our tips and resources to ensure children always feel listened to

> Browse our resources on promoting healthy relationships

> Find out more about preparing for and having difficult conversations with children

> Share resources with parents to help them talk to their child about sex and relationships (NSPCC website)

WATCH: How should we respond to developmentally typical (green) sexual behaviours?

Problematic (amber) sexual behaviours 

Problematic sexual behaviour (PSB) should not be ignored. The child or young person will need support to help them change their behaviour and stop the behaviour escalating.

Problematic sexual behaviours might also indicate that a child has experienced trauma or abuse, so it’s important to respond appropriately to keep the child safe.

WATCH: Why might PSB become a safeguarding and child protection concern?

How to respond

  • Follow your organisation’s procedures for responding to incidents of PSB.
  • Talk calmly and non-judgementally to the child who has displayed PSB, and take appropriate measures to support them.
  • Make sure children who have experienced the PSB are safe and supported. 

> Get information on how to respond to incidents of problematic sexual behaviour

WATCH: How might we respond to an incident of PSB and support children?

Harmful (red) sexual behaviours 

If a child or young person is displaying harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) you should take immediate intervention and action to keep everyone involved safe.

Your nominated child protection lead needs to know what's happened as soon as possible. They should consider whether the child or young person displaying the behaviour is at risk and take the necessary action to protect them. They also need to take action to mitigate the risk the harmful sexual behaviour may pose to others.

WATCH: Why are harmful sexual behaviours a safeguarding and child protection concern?

How to respond

  • Follow your organisation’s procedures for reporting and responding to incidents of HSB.
  • Talk calmly and non-judgementally to the child who has displayed HSB, and take appropriate measures to support them.
  • Make sure children who have experienced peer-on-peer sexual abuse are safe and supported. 

> Learn more about responding to and managing incidents of harmful sexual behaviour

WATCH: How should we respond to incidents of HSB?

Printable continuum guide

In partnership with Hackett, Durham University and NHS Health Education England, we've created a quick printable guide to help you remember how to recognise sexualised behaviour.

> Download the quick guide (PDF)

Resources

Resources

Elearning

Looking to further develop your understanding of harmful sexual behaviour? We have elearning courses available for primary and secondary schools.

> See what’s included our Harmful sexual behaviour in schools training

Support for children and young people

Childline provides information and advice for young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships

Further reading

For further reading about harmful sexual behaviour, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keyword "harmful sexual behaviour".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Library and Information Service.

Related NSPCC resources

> Get more information on typical sexual development

> Find out more about responding to harmful sexual behaviour

> Read our harmful sexual behaviour framework

> View our learning from case reviews briefing about harmful sexual behaviour

> Read our research briefing about harmful sexual behaviour

> Read our statistics briefing on harmful sexual behaviour