Protecting children from peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Last updated: 20 Oct 2020
Introduction

Introduction

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is sexual abuse that happens between children of a similar age or stage of development. It can happen between any number of children, and can affect any age group (Department for Education (DfE), 2018).

It can be harmful to the children who display it as well as those who experience it.

Children can experience peer-on-peer sexual abuse in a wide range of settings, including:

  • at school
  • at home or in someone else's home
  • in public spaces
  • online

(NSPCC, 2018).

It can take place in spaces which are supervised or unsupervised. Within a school context, for example, peer-on-peer sexual abuse might take place in spaces such as toilets, the playground, corridors and when children are walking home (Contextual Safeguarding Network, 2020).

As children develop healthily, it's normal for them to display certain types of sexualised behaviour. It’s important that adults who work or volunteer with children can identify if any sexualised behaviour has become harmful or abusive, and respond proportionally to keep all the children involved safe.

We’ve put together some principles of best practice to help you recognise and respond to peer-on-peer sexual abuse. It includes information on:

  • what peer-on-peer sexual abuse looks like
  • how to respond appropriately and proportionately to concerns or instances of peer-on-peer sexual abuse
  • how you can help prevent peer-on-peer sexual abuse occurring
  • an overview of the legislation and guidance to help practitioners recognise and respond to peer-on-peer sexual abuse across the UK.

This information will be helpful for anyone who works or volunteers with children and young people - including in schools, healthcare, youth clubs, community groups and childcare.

Training for schools on managing sexualised behaviour

Learn more about recognising and responding to harmful sexual behaviour in a supportive and proportionate way in your school.

> Take our online course

Recognising

Recognising peer-on-peer sexual abuse

It can be difficult to work out if a child is displaying appropriate, inappropriate, problematic or abusive sexual behaviour.

Examples of sexually abusive behaviour may include:

  • inappropriate or unwanted sexualised touching
  • pressurising, forcing or coercing others to perform or take part in sexual acts
  • pressuring, forcing or coercing someone to share nude images (sexting)
  • sharing sexual images of a person without their consent
  • taking a picture under a person’s clothing, without their consent (‘upskirting’)
  • sexual harassment
  • sexual or sexist name calling

(Contextual Safeguarding Network, 2020).

If you’re concerned about a child’s sexualised behaviour, you can use our resources to help work out whether the behaviour may be harmful or abusive.

> Find out more about harmful sexual behaviour

> Read more about how to spot if a child may be displaying harmful sexual behaviour, and what action to take

> Find out more about the healthy sexual development of children and young people

Signs that a child has experienced peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Indicators that a child has experienced peer-on-peer sexual abuse may be physical or behavioural. A child or young person may appear withdrawn, frightened or begin to act differently from usual.

They may also display physical signs such as noticeable discomfort in their genital or anal area.

> Find out more about recognising the signs of sexual abuse

Barriers to disclosure

Children do not always feel able to speak out about their experiences of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

They may be afraid of:

  • being considered a ‘snitch’
  • getting in trouble themselves
  • how they will be perceived by others
  • teachers or other adults not being discrete
  • their parents being informed

(Contextual Safeguarding Network, 2020).

If a child is unsure about whether or not they have been sexually abused, they might be worried about causing a fuss or getting someone else in trouble for ‘no reason’.

Children’s understanding of peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Children may not always understand that they have experienced or carried out peer-on-peer sexual abuse. This might be because:

  • they don’t understand what constitutes appropriate, inappropriate, problematic or abusive sexualised behaviour
  • they have experienced sexual abuse themselves and don’t realise that what happened to them was wrong
  • they don’t know whether consent was given
  • the abuse happened between friends or partners
  • the abuse took place online
  • they blame themselves for the abuse they received
  • younger children lack knowledge of sex and sexuality as they are less likely to have received any relationships and sex education

(NSPCC, 2018).

Some children and young people who have viewed pornography may want to emulate what they have seen (Martellozzo et al, 2016).

Some children and young people who experience abuse may begin to understand that they have experienced abuse over time, as they grow older and learn more about sex and healthy relationships (NSPCC, 2018).

Responding

Responding to peer-on-peer sexual abuse

If a child experiences peer-on-peer sexual abuse or there are concerns a child might be displaying harmful sexual behaviour (HSB), you need to take child protection action.

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child 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. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • 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 your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.

> Find out more about responding to harmful sexual behaviour

> Read about how to spot if a child may be displaying harmful sexual behaviour, and what action to take

Protecting all the children involved

You should balance the duty to safeguard the child who has experienced abuse with the need to support the child who has displayed harmful sexual behaviour.

Children who witnessed the abuse or are friends of those involved may also be affected and need support.

Each incident of or concern about peer-on-peer abuse will be different: you should gather all the facts, assess any risks and make decisions on a case-by-case basis. This will help you understand who needs to be involved to make sure all children are appropriately protected and supported.

> Read our information and best practice advice on managing allegations made against a child

Supporting the child who has experienced abuse

Every child who has experienced abuse should receive tailored support to meet their needs. There are things you can do to help make them feel safe and supported.

  • Listen carefully to the child and reassure them that you are taking them seriously.
  • Record the incident, noting all the relevant facts as fully as possible. Write down the language used by the child. This will help you record precisely what happened and understand how the child has been affected.
  • Consider what support the child may need in the short-term, for example making sure they won’t come into contact with the child who has displayed abusive behaviour.
  • Consider what long-term support the child may need to help them recover from the trauma of what they have experienced. This may include therapeutic support.
  • Understand the child’s support network and consider what help they need to protect and care for the child.
  • Include the child in any decisions that affect them.

Supporting the child who has displayed abusive or harmful sexual behaviour

It’s important to protect and support children who have displayed abusive or harmful sexual behaviour.

  • Consider any risks to the child’s safety and what multi-agency responses are needed to support the child and their family.
  • Talk calmly to the child. Remember that they may not realise they have behaved abusively and avoid using language that may make them feel judged or criminalised.
  • Consider appropriate sanctions in light of your organisation’s behaviour policy.
  • Work with the child and their support network to put measures in place that will help the child change their behaviour.
  • Consider what targeted therapeutic support the child may need.

> Find out more about managing harmful sexual behaviour in schools

Multi-agency responses

Your nominated child protection lead should work with relevant agencies to protect and support all the children involved in an incident of peer-on-peer sexual abuse. This includes children’s social care and the police if necessary.

> Find out about best practice for multi-agency working

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

> Read the harmful sexual behaviour framework

Prevention

Preventing peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Organisations and individuals that work with children have a responsibility to keep them safe. It’s important to create a healthy and safe environment for all children and young people and challenge societal norms that may allow peer-on-peer sexual abuse to take place.

Policies, procedures and codes of conduct

Your safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures should include information about peer-on-peer sexual abuse. You should share these with everyone in your organisation, as well as parents and carers. This will help adults understand what they need to do to prevent and tackle peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

You might find it helpful to create a version of your policies and procedures that are suitable for children and young people.

Sharing this information may:

  • help children and young people understand that any incidents of peer-on-peer sexual abuse will be taken seriously and responded to effectively
  • help them know how to report anything upsetting that may happen
  • encourage them to speak out if they are worried about their own or someone else’s behaviour.

> Find out about writing safeguarding policies and procedures

You should also have codes of conduct which clearly set out what behaviour is and is not appropriate for adults and children. This will help make sure young people know what behaviour is suitable for your setting and what the consequences will be if they breach the rules.

Helping children speak out

Children might not feel able to talk to adults about peer-on-peer sexual abuse. But there are things you can do to make it easier.

  • Children may feel more confident speaking out if they have a positive, trusting relationship with a trusted adult. This can be done by encouraging them to share their thoughts and opinions, responding to their concerns, and respecting and listening to them.
  • If children can see a culture within your organisation that challenges inappropriate behaviour, they may feel more confident that any concerns they raise will be responded to appropriately.
  • Having specialist staff in pastoral care or counselling roles can make it easier for children to share their concerns.

(Contextual Safeguarding Network, 2020).

Safe environments

You should think about how you can make your organisation’s environment safe for children and young people. To start with, you could identify any locations where there are concerns about peer-on-peer sexual abuse taking place. This might include toilets, unsupervised corridors and areas that are poorly lit or hidden from adult view. Think about what you can do to make these places safer – for example, increasing supervision levels in certain areas or improving lighting.

> Find out about creating safer environments for children and young people

Talking with children about abuse and harassment

It’s important to talk with children and young people about peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

It’s good practice for all organisations that work with children to have discussions about sex and healthy relationships. In schools, lessons on relationships, sex and sexuality are a good way of helping children learn about topics such as appropriate sexual behaviour, trust, consent, boundaries and responsibility.

Topics you can discuss include:

  • what healthy sexual activity and respectful relationships look like (both online and offline)
  • gender stereotypes and perceptions of gender roles
  • pornography and how it presents sexual behaviour
  • consent and withdrawing consent

(Department for Education (DfE), 2018; DfE, 2020).

Explain what peer-on-peer sexual abuse is and what it may look like. This may help children understand if they have seen or experienced abuse. Make sure they know who they can talk to if they are concerned about anything or have experienced something upsetting.

Childline has produced age-appropriate information and advice for children and young people about sexual abuse, which includes information about peer-on-peer sexual abuse. You may want to signpost children to Childline for support, or use some of these examples to help start a conversation.

> Childline’s information about sexual abuse for children and young people

> Read our advice on how to have difficult conversations with children

> Find out more about how to promote healthy relationships, from early years through to older children

Training

Make sure all the adults in your organisation are trained to recognise and respond to peer-on-peer sexual abuse. This will help them understand what is normal, inappropriate or abusive sexual behaviour and what action to take.

> Find out more about managing harmful sexual behaviour in schools

> Read about responding to harmful sexual behaviour in sports settings (Child Protection in Sport website)

Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

Across the UK there is guidance to help professionals recognise and respond to harmful sexual behaviour.

> Read about legislation and guidance relating to harmful sexual behaviour

There is also specific guidance to help practitioners respond proportionately and effectively to peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has published guidance on Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges. People in other sectors and other nations may also find the principles of best practice in this guidance helpful.

The guidance states that schools and colleges should develop policies and procedures on responding to child-on-child sexual violence and harassment. They should consider how to reflect this in a whole-school approach to safeguarding and child protection. Guidance is provided on:

  • schools’ and colleges’ legal duties and responsibilities
  • responding to reports of child-on-child sexual violence and harassment
  • effective ongoing responses

(DfE 2018).

> Read our CASPAR briefing on the guidance on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges

Part five of the statutory child protection guidance Keeping children safe in education also contains information on:

  • responding to reports of child-on-child sexual violence and harassment
  • risk assessment
  • actions to take following a report of child-on-child sexual violence and/or harassment
  • ongoing responses

(DfE 2020).

In Northern Ireland, section 7.4 of the statutory guidance, Co-operating to Safeguard Children and Young People in Northern Ireland, provides information on peer-on-peer abuse and harmful sexual behaviour. This includes advice on a co-ordinated response (Department of Health, 2017).

In Scotland, the National guidance for child protection provides information on managing and reducing risk around children who display sexually abusive behaviour (Scottish Government, 2014).

In Wales, the Welsh Government has published guidance for education settings on peer sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour. It includes information on:

  • recognising normal, inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent sexual behaviour
  • duties and responsibilities of education settings
  • a whole school approach to preventing and responding to peer sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour

(Welsh Government, 2020a).

This guidance supplements the All Wales Practice Guide: Safeguarding children where there are concerns about harmful sexual behaviour (Welsh Government, 2020b).

Sex and relationships education

UK schools should teach children about sex and relationships. This should include discussions about peer-on-peer sexual abuse, consent, healthy relationships and sexuality.

> Find out more about the guidance relating to relationships and sex education across the UK

References

References

Contextual Safeguarding Network (2020) Beyond referrals: harmful sexual behaviour in schools. [Accessed 04/08/2020].

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges. London: DfE.

Department for Education (DfE) (2020) Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education. London: Department for Education.

Department of Health (DoH) (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health. Northern Ireland.

Mortellozzo, E., Monaghen, A., Adler, J.R., Davidson, J., Leyva, R. and Horvath, M.A.H. (2016) I wasn't sure it was normal to watch it. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2018) "Is this sexual abuse?": NSPCC helplines report about peer sexual abuse. London: NSPCC.

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Welsh Government (2020a) Guidance for education settings on peer sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour. Cardiff: Welsh Government

Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2020b) Wales Safeguarding Procedures. [Accessed 10/10/2020].