How to deal with concerning behaviour from your child
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In order to keep children safe from harm, it is vital that parents and carers understand how to read the warning signs of age-inappropriate behaviour and how to address any concerns that you have with your children.
Our guide aims to provide protective adults and professionals with the information they need to discuss worrying behaviours and signpost to where additional support is available.
1. Learn to read the signs
Think about looking at resources that help you understand what is considered appropriate and normal behaviour for the age and stage of development of your child, and which behaviours might be considered more concerning.
Learn to recognise the signs of harmful sexual behaviour, for example, these could include:
- seeking the company of younger children or spending an unusual amount of time with them
- taking younger children to a ‘secret place’ or playing ‘special games’
- insisting on hugging or kissing a child who does not want to be kissed or hugged
- showing anxiety or reluctance to be with a specific child or children
- frequently using aggressive sexual language about others
- showing sexual material to younger children
- making sexually abusive telephone calls
- sending or sharing sexual images
- sharing alcohol or drugs with other children
- viewing indecent images of children, or increasing the amount of pornography they are watching
- exposing their genitals to others
- forcing sex on others.
2. Not all sexual behaviour involving young people is problematic
This can be a concerning and confusing topic, but not all sexual behaviour involving young people is problematic and they have a right and a choice in how to sexually express themselves.
Behaviour is likely to be normative if it is:
- between young people of a similar age and developmental stage
- limited in type and frequency
- balanced by a curiosity about other things
- light-hearted and spontaneous.
It is worth considering who the behaviour is problematic for, as some behaviours are normal but can make a parent or carer feel uncomfortable or embarrassed because it is sexual in nature. If this is the case, consider the need for your child to learn about sex in a healthy way, as well as how to express themselves sexually in a safe way.
If the behaviour is normal for the child’s age and stage of sexual development, this might still provide an opportunity to talk to your child, to teach them and to explain what is appropriate.
If the behaviour becomes more worrying, this might be an opportunity to explain in more detail what is wrong with this behaviour. You should monitor the behaviour to see if it persists and you might want to provide your child with extra support.
If the behaviour is very worrying and more serious, then you need to make sure that you are very clear about what the behaviour is and why it is wrong, ask your child to stop engaging in this behaviour and perhaps seek some advice, for example from the Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900 or use our live chat, or from a childcare professional such as a health visitor, a GP or a social worker.
What does the law say?
With penetrative sexual activity, the young person must be able to understand and give informed consent – children under the age of 13 years old are not capable of giving consent to sexual activity in UK law.
Professionals may want to consider whether a child’s sexual activity raises any specific safeguarding issues.
3. How to talk about worrying behaviours
When you talk to your child about any worrying behaviours, the following can help:
- making sure you stay calm
- making sure you have plenty of time
- speaking to your child somewhere private, where you are alone and away from other family members
- asking your child whether anything is troubling them and listening to what they say
- providing reassurance that you are there for them, that they can talk to you and that you are not judging them
- explaining why you feel their behaviour is worrying you, and what the consequences of their behaviour can be
- deciding together what you are going to do to make some changes, and making sure your response is proportionate to what has happened. Refer to resources such as the family safety plan from Parents Protect
- redirecting your child to safe activities
- monitoring and supporting your child
- re-visiting things if the problematic behaviours persist or get worse.