Harmful sexual behaviour: learning from case reviews Summary of risk factors and learning for improved practice around harmful sexual behaviour

Boy looking down at the groundHarmful sexual behaviour (HSB) can be a challenging issue for professionals to manage. A child who displays HSB can have a range of behaviours, which need a safeguarding response. HSB has been identified as a significant risk factor in some serious case reviews.

Published case reviews show that professionals can find it difficult to respond to the safeguarding implications of HSB. There may be several children involved, each of whom will have different needs, and minimising the immediate effects of an incident can become a priority. Because of this, professionals can find themselves managing individual episodes rather than looking at the bigger picture.

The learning from these reviews highlights that children who display HSB need support and understanding. HSB should be recognised as a potential indicator of abuse and professionals should work together to look for the reasons behind a child's behaviour and consider appropriate safeguarding responses.

Published: February 2017


This briefing summarises the learning from case review reports. It is an analysis by the NSPCC Information Service, highlighting risk factors and key learning for improved practice.

Reasons case reviews were commissioned

This briefing is based on learning from case reviews published since 2010, where harmful sexual behaviour was highlighted as a significant issue.

The children in these case reviews faced a complex and wide range of risk factors. They became the subject of reviews following:

  • involvement in sexually harmful behaviour
  • death of a child following a violent incident involving other young people
  • death of a child following a serious head injury
  • suicide of a young person whose issues included displaying harmful sexual behaviour.

Risk factors for harmful sexual behaviour in case reviews

  • Responding to individual incidents of HSB can become the focus of professionals' attention, rather than looking at patterns of behaviour and the reasons behind it.
  • Professionals may not understand the seriousness of HSB so they do not always make appropriate referrals or follow-ups.
  • Children who display HSB are not often discussed at multi-agency meetings, so no one gains an overview of the child's situation.
  • If HSB is investigated as a criminal offence rather than a safeguarding concern, the child is not always given appropriate support and protection.
    • HSB can involve several children. Sometimes the needs or behaviour of one child can distract professionals' attention away from the needs of another.
    • Sometimes a child’s risk to others can overshadow any risks they are being exposed to. This may mean that the child is not supported appropriately.
    • Some professionals feel that they only have a responsibility towards a specific group of children, which can mean that the safeguarding needs of other children are overlooked.
    • It can be challenging for professionals to establish whether sexual activity has taken place between two children, and whether any of the children involved were coerced or forced into taking part. This makes it difficult to assess the risks to each child and offer the support needed.
  • Some professionals may not fully understand the underlying risks of HSB and think it isn't serious enough to report or investigate.
  • Sometimes professionals can assume that the sexual behaviour between two children is consensual, and believe they should respect the privacy of the children involved. This means that issues are not reported and information is not shared. This is a particular concern if at least one of the children involved is particularly vulnerable, for example if they are much younger or have a disability.
  • Some professionals may not understand the reasons why children display HSB, seeing them as predators rather than vulnerable young people.
  • Due to lack of resources, it can take time for therapeutic intervention to be offered to a child.

Learning for improved practice

  • Professionals should look beyond individual incidents of HSB, at the overall patterns which emerge.
  • Accurate, detailed records should be kept about incidents of HSB. This will help professionals now and in the future to get an overview of what is happening.
  • It's important to identify the reasons behind the child's behaviour and take action to address them.
  • Professionals should adopt a child-centred approach, working with children to find out what risks they are exposed to and what their needs are.
  • Professionals should consider the child's use of social media and whether they are a part of any networks that promote harmful sexual behaviours.
  • As long as there is no risk in doing so, professionals should tell parents about any incidents of HSB that their child has been involved in, and help them to support their child appropriately.
  • Organisations should have specific procedures for responding to HSB and safeguarding all the children involved. All staff should be made aware of these and know how to follow them.
  • Referrals should be made to children's social work services early on so that any risks to children can be properly identified and ongoing support can be provided.
  • Information about children who display HSB should be shared between agencies so that professionals can get an overview of the child's situation and identify any risks they are exposed to.
  • Professionals working together need to be clear about their individual roles and how this contributes to the overall safeguarding of the children involved.

Tools and guidance for professionals

The Harmful sexual behaviour framework helps local authorities to develop a more consistent multi-agency response to children who display HSB.

The NICE guidance for responding to HSB among children and young people gives advice to ensure that problems are identified and addressed early, and that children are appropriately referred to specialist services for help.

Related topics

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Lessons from case reviews published since 2010, where the young people involved have made an attempt on or taken their own lives.
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Teenagers: learning from case reviews

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Deaf and disabled children: learning from case reviews

Lessons from case reviews published since 2010 which have highlighted lessons for working with deaf and disabled children.
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Education: learning from case reviews

Lessons from case reviews published since 2008, which have highlighted lessons for the education sector to improve safeguarding practice.
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More information and resources

National case review repository

Working together with the Association of Independent LSCB Chairs to make finding the learning from case reviews published in 2014 and 2013 easy to find.

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Managing sexualised behaviour in primary schools - online course

An online course to help you manage incidents of sexualised behaviour within your primary school. Cost: £30
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Child protection system

The services and process in place across the United Kingdom to protect children at risk of  abuse, neglect or harm.

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Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.

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