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Why language matters: why we shouldn’t talk about the ‘risky behaviour’ of young people experiencing abuse

Last updated: 24 Nov 2023 Topics: Blog
A teenager walks down the pavement

From the NSPCC'S Library and Information Service specialists

Taking risks is an important part of growing up. It helps young people discover who they are, expand their skills and develop their independence.

Case reviews often identify professionals focusing on the ‘risky behaviour’ of teenagers experiencing abuse or exploitation. This includes a case in which a teenage girl who was sexually exploited was described as, “leading a lifestyle that puts her at serious risk of significant sexual, physical and emotional harm",1 and another in which a boy experiencing criminal exploitation was consistently referred to in assessments as, “placing himself at risk of harm”.2

In the context of abuse and exploitation, a professional focus on risk-taking behaviour can imply that the young person has a level of responsibility for what has happened to them – when in fact abuse is never a young person’s fault.

Keep the focus on the impact on the child

Risk is a word that is often used when talking about adolescent behaviour, such as drinking alcohol or staying out late. When the same language is used to talk about signs of exploitation and abuse, such as being given alcohol by adults or repeatedly being found a long way from home, it can minimise the safeguarding concerns involved. This can feed into a wider tendency for professionals to lose sight of the fact that teenagers are children in need of protection.

It can also make young people feel like the harm they’ve experienced isn’t being recognised. As one young person commented, “For me it’s the word ‘risky’. . .using words like that you can feel that less important, your problems are not important, your trauma is not important”.3

Don’t place responsibility on the child

Language which focuses on ‘risky behaviour’ implies that, through their actions, young people are choosing to put themselves at risk of harm. It places responsibility on the behaviour of the young person, rather than the person causing them harm. This fails to acknowledge the impact of the abuser’s coercive, controlling or grooming behaviour on the young person. It overlooks the fact that the behaviour being labelled as “risky” is often a product of abuse, and an indicator of safeguarding concerns. It also distracts from the fundamental fact that abuse occurs not because of the young person’s behaviour, but because those who want to harm are motivated to do so.4

Making young people feel like they are in some way responsible for their own abuse can add to feelings of self-blame, shame and guilt.5 It can make them feel less able to speak about what is happening to them and hinder recovery from the trauma they have experienced.

Consider the context of the behaviour

Labelling behaviour as ‘risky’ also overlooks the complexity of the context in which the abuse takes place. Actions which appear ‘risky’ to a professional, could for the young person feel like a form of self-preservation, an attempt to meet unmet needs, or a response to their previous experiences of trauma.6

For example, a young person who has experienced abuse in the past might be groomed by someone who appears to offer them the ‘love’ and affection’ they need. Their past experiences of abuse may make it hard for them to recognise that their ‘relationship’ is exploitative or make them feel like they don’t deserve anything better.

Address the safeguarding concerns

When language is centred on the behaviour of the child, it can lead to a professional response which prioritises or overly focusses on addressing that behaviour, rather than meeting safeguarding needs.

Empowering young people with the knowledge and support they need to recognise abusive situations and share what is happening to them is an important part of safeguarding. It requires mutual trust between the professional and the young person and an understanding of the young person’s lived experience. It also needs to be part of a wider response. Keeping the language focused on safeguarding encourages discussions around what needs to be done to tackle the perpetrators’ abusive behaviour and to address the context that allowed abuse to take place.

Changing language to help change practice

Work with young people should always emphasise the fact that the abuse is not their fault, and that responsibility for the abuse sits with their abuser. Talking about experiences from the child’s perspective can help build up a picture of their lived experiences and identify the support and protection they need to help keep them safe.

Instead of talking about the young person’s behaviour, describing the actions of the perpetrator appropriately places the focus on the abuse the young person is experiencing. For example, the Barnardo’s guide to language suggests talking about adults using alcohol to disinhibit children as part of their grooming behaviour, rather than children choosing to spend time drinking with adults.7

Changes in language can also help professionals consider the context in which abuse takes place. The Children’s Society suggests talking about there being a lack of protective factors, locations being dangerous or situations reducing children’s safety, rather than describing the child as putting themselves at risk.8

Reframing the problem can help professionals consider the wider actions needed to address both the behaviour of the perpetrator and the situations in which abuse takes place. It can enable opportunities to help professionals build up a trusting relationship with the young people they are trying to help and highlights the fact that safeguarding should always be the initial focus of any response.


Raynes, B. (2016) Serious case review: overview report in respect of Jeanette (PDF). Calderdale: Calderdale Safeguarding Children Board.
Vinall, I. (2023) Local child safeguarding practice review: David (PDF). Berkshire West: Berkshire West Safeguarding Children Partnership.
Farooq, R. et al (2018) ‘Risky child, risky involvement?’: Hearing the voice of the child subject to or at risk of sexual exploitation. The Child & Family Clinical Psychology Review, 6(9), 52-57.
Barnardo’s (2023) Language matters: use of language in child sexual abuse and exploitation practice (PDF). [Ilford]: Barnardo’s
Appiah, A. et al (2021) Making words matter: attending to language when working with children subject to or at risk of exploitation: a practice and knowledge briefing (PDF). Derby: NWG Network
Eaton, J. and Holmes, D. (2017) Working effectively to address child sexual exploitation: evidence scope. Dartington: Research in Practice.
Barnardo’s (2023) Language matters: use of language in child sexual abuse and exploitation practice (PDF). [Ilford]: Barnardo’s
The Children’s Society (2022) Appropriate language in relation to child exploitation (PDF). London: The Children's Society

Key points

  • Talking about a young person’s ‘risk taking behaviour’ in the context of abuse incorrectly implies the child is responsible for the harm they are experiencing. This can lead to a response focused on addressing the child’s behaviour, rather than protecting the child from their abusers.
  • A child’s behaviour is never the reason why abuse happens, the abuser is responsible for the abuse.
  • By reframing conversations to focus on the harm young people are experiencing, children can be better protected, and abuse can be more directly addressed.