Preventing harmful sexual behaviour

Children and young people are most likely to be at risk of sexual abuse within their family and community. But not all sexual abuse is carried out by adults. Around one-third of child sexual abuse is thought to be carried out by under 18s.

And as Covid-19 restrictions mean that some children might be spending more time unsupervised offline and online or away from supportive adults, there’s a real danger that cases of harm might increase.

That’s why we’ve made a guide for parents, carers and professionals on preventing harmful sexual behaviour to help everyone do their part in keeping children safe.

Browse the information on this page or download the toolkit:

What is the challenge?

Child sexual abuse is an important public health issue, and parents, carers and families have a vital role to play in keeping children safe.

Children and young people are most likely to be at risk of sexual abuse within their family and community. But not all sexual abuse is carried out by adults.

It is hard for us to think about children and young people sexually abusing other children and young people, and it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between abusive and normal sexual behaviours in children.

Children, particularly in younger age groups, might engage in such behaviour without knowing that it is wrong or abusive. That’s why it can be more helpful to talk about harmful sexual behaviour rather than abuse.

What is harmful sexual behaviour?

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is a term used to describe sexual actions that are outside what is safe for a young person’s stage of development. It includes actions that can harm either the child or young person themselves, or another person.

It can include:

  • frequently and intentionally accessing age-inappropriate sexual material online
  • using inappropriate language
  • undertaking mutual sexual activity they are not ready for with peers
  • sending and receiving illegal images
  • sexual interactions where there are significant power differences, lack of consent, or through force or threats
  • engaging in abusive or sexually violent sexual behaviour online or offline.

What does research tell us?

  • Under 18s are responsible for at least a third of recorded sexual offences against children and young people in the UK.
  • Boys in early adolescence, around the time puberty starts, tend to display the most harmful sexual behaviour, although younger children and girls do sometimes engage in these behaviours too.
  • Girls tend to be over-represented amongst the victims of harmful sexual behaviour.
  • Those with learning disabilities and autism also tend to be over-represented amongst young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour.
  • Around half of young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour have experienced sexual abuse themselves.

The vast majority of young people do not persist with these behaviours into adulthood. Parents and carers need to be able to consider the risks their own children and young people might pose to others, both online and in-person, and to be alert to the signs of harmful sexual behaviour that children and young people display.

How can we help with preventing harmful sexual behaviour?

If you’re worried about a child’s sexual behaviour, either in the real world or online, then call our free and confidential helpline on 0808 1000 900 for advice, support and information from an experienced advisor.

If you’re not ready to speak to someone yet, you can use our secure messaging service or live chat.

The next page will take you through why harmful sexual behaviour in young people and children has become a bigger issue over the last year.

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