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Harmful sexual behaviour: labelling actions, not children

Last updated: 22 Aug 2022 Topics: Blog
Why language matters: improving safeguarding and child protection practice with words | Image: close-up of young person nervously picking at loose thread on their jeans

From the NSPCC's Library and Information Service specialists

Names are powerful things. They can affect how people see you, and how you see yourself. That's why it's so important to focus on actions, rather than labelling children as 'abusers', when talking about harmful sexual behaviour (HSB).

The impact of language on professionals' perceptions

Case reviews highlight that professionals sometimes lose sight of the safeguarding needs of children displaying HSB.

By thinking of a child as an 'abuser', 'offender' or 'perpetrator', it's easy to allow concerns about the risk of a child's behaviour towards others overshadow all other considerations. However, research shows that many children and young people who display HSB have experienced abuse or trauma1. A child's HSB can also pose a risk to themselves, as well as those around them. So, it's important that professionals balance the duty to safeguard children who have experienced abuse with the need to support children who have displayed HSB.

Using terms like 'peer-on-peer sexual abuse', 'child-on-child sexual abuse' or 'sibling sexual abuse' which focus on the relationship between the children involved, without putting them in the broader context of harmful sexual behaviour, can also limit professional understanding. For example, in one case review a young person had displayed HSB towards their sister and it was then incorrectly assumed that their behaviour posed no risk to boys2.

Shifting to talking about a child's 'harmful sexual behaviour' prompts professionals to look beyond the labels of 'abuser' and 'abused' and consider the safeguarding needs of everyone involved. It helps professionals recognise that a child’s identity isn’t fixed, that they can exhibit a range of different behaviours, and that these behaviours can change depending on their circumstances.

The impact of language on children's perceptions of themselves

It's important that professionals are aware of how the language they use can impact on a child's self-identity.

Children and young people who display HSB often feel shame or guilt. They may be worried about being in trouble or judged. They may also be concerned about being rejected by, or even removed from, their family. It can therefore be hard for children to talk about their HSB.

Calling a child an 'abuser' can compound these issues, making them feel criminalised or judged. It can perpetuate feelings of shame and make it harder for them to open-up about their behaviour. It can also impact on a child's motivation, and belief in their ability, to change.

By focussing on specific behaviours and actions, rather than labelling the child, professionals can create an environment where children feel safe to talk to about what they have done without blame or judgement. A trusting, therapeutic relationship can enable children to explore the reasons behind their HSB and develop strategies to manage it.

> Listen to our podcast episodes about understanding denial in children displaying harmful sexual behaviour


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.
Dalton, M. and Dudley Safeguarding Children Board (2018) Serious case review: Peter 17 years: John 15 years: Tom 11 years: Christopher 9 years. Dudley: Dudley Safeguarding Children Board.

Key points to take away

Talking about harmful sexual behaviour rather than young 'abusers', 'child-on-child sexual abuse' or 'peer-on-peer sexual abuse' may:

  • draw attention to the harm the behaviour is causing to the child displaying HSB, as well as the person it is directed towards
  • prompt professionals to consider the reasons behind the harmful behaviour
  • help both the child and the professionals working with them recognise that their behaviour can change over time
  • help the child displaying HSB to receive the child protection response they need.