Harmful sexual behaviour Signs, symptoms and effects

Children and young people who behave in a sexually harmful way may have been abused in the past. Sometimes a child’s reaction to past abuse can lead to them developing harmful sexual behaviour.

The stages of normal sexual behaviour

There are 4 phases of childhood sexual development. Just like every other part of growing up, some children mature sooner or later than others. So, don't be too worried if your child doesn't act exactly as you'd expect.

Children with developmental delays may not stick to these age guides. If you're worried about anything you should speak to a health professional about it.

Even at this stage, sexual behaviour is beginning to emerge through actions like:

  • kissing and hugging
  • showing curiosity about private body parts
  • talking about private body parts and using words like poo, willy and bum
  • playing "house" or "doctors and nurses" type games with other children
  • touching, rubbing or showing off their genitals or masturbating as a comforting habit. 

As children get a little older they become more aware of the need for privacy while also:

  • kissing and hugging
  • showing curiosity about private body parts but respecting privacy
  • talking about private body parts and sometimes showing them off
  • trying to shock by using words like poo, willy and bum
  • using swear and sex words they've heard other people say
  • playing "house" or "doctors and nurses" type games with other children
  • touching, rubbing or showing others their private parts

Children are getting more curious about sex and sexual behaviour through:

  • kissing, hugging and 'dating' other children
  • being interested in other people's body parts and the changes that happen in puberty
  • asking about relationships and sexual behaviour
  • looking for information about sex, this might lead to finding online porn
  • masturbating in private.

As puberty kicks in, sexual behaviour becomes more private with:

  • kissing, hugging, dating and forming longer-lasting relationships
  • being interested in and asking questions about body parts, relationships and sexuality
  • using sexual language and talking about sex with friends
  • looking for sexual pictures or online porn
  • masturbating in private and experimenting sexually with the same age group.

If you're unsure whether a behaviour is healthy, Brook provide a helpful, easy to use traffic light tool. The traffic light system is used to describe healthy (green) sexual behaviours, potentially unhealthy (amber) sexual behaviours and unhealthy (red) sexual behaviours.

The tool suggests what kind of attention and response you should give to each type of behaviour. And it suggests what kind of help might be necessary to ensure the child's safety. The tool can be used by parents and professionals.

Find out more about healthy sexual behaviour and what to do if a behaviour is concerning you.

Advice for parents of children displaying sexually harmful behaviour

Finding out that your child has displayed harmful sexual behaviour towards another child can evoke emotions such as shock, anger and blame. Children may deny the behaviour for a long time. As with any form of abuse, how you react towards your child is important. It may feel easier to ignore your concerns and hope the behaviours will stop. But it’s vital to get support for your child and family.

It can be reassuring to know that the majority of young people who show harmful sexual behaviour don’t go on to become adult sex offenders. But research suggests there are some young people with sexual behaviour problems who are at high risk of doing so (Hackett, 2006). So it’s vital that both child and family get appropriate support as early as possible. Early action can help to prevent abuse.

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Sexual abuse

A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This doesn't have to be physical contact, and it can happen online.
Read more about sexual abuse

Grooming

Children and young people can be groomed online or in the real world, by a stranger or by someone they know - for example a family member, friend or professional. 
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Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a type of sexual abuse in which children are sexually exploited for money, power or status.
Read more about child sexual exploitation

Healthy sexual behaviour in children and young people

Useful advice on what is normal sexual behaviour, warning signs that suggest there may be a problem, and how best to react.
What is healthy sexual behaviour?

What to do if you suspect abuse

These are the steps you can take to help keep a child safe from abuse and to protect a child if you suspect they've been abused.
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References

  1. Hackett, S., Masson, H. and Phillips, S. (2006) Exploring consensus in practice with youth who are sexually abusive: findings from a Delphi study of practitioner views in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.. (Child maltreatment, Vol.11, Iss.2) pp 146-156.