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This article was contributed by NCA-CEOP

NCA-CEOP is a command of the National Crime Agency. As well as being a reporting mechanism, NCA-CEOP works with child protection partners across the UK and overseas to identify the main threats to children, and coordinates activity against these threats to bring offenders to account.

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Harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people: what parents need to know

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It’s normal for teenagers to be curious about sex, and many sexual behaviours are healthy and normal at this age. It can be really worrying if you feel that your child’s behaviour is harmful when it comes to sex. Sophie Jones at NCA-CEOP explains the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviour and what you can do if you are concerned about your child’s behaviour.

What is harmful sexual behaviour?



The term ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ describes the sexual behaviour of children and young people that is harming them or another child, young person, or adult. These behaviours are on a continuum, ranging from what may be developmentally inappropriate to abusive. This kind of behaviour can appear in children of any age, both online and off.

Here are a few examples of harmful sexual behaviour:
  • Use of sexist, sexually explicit words and phrases
  • Dating / romantic relationships in which one person seems to have more ‘power’ than the other

  • Unwanted touching

  • Sexual violence

Examples of online harmful sexual behaviour:
  • Sharing sexual images of someone without their consent

  • Sexual images produced under pressure, coercion or blackmail


There are a range of common and healthy sexual behaviours at each developmental stage including:

  • Mutual and consensual
  • Not intent on causing harm

  • Typically between children of similar ages

  • Often experimental

  • Talk to your child about positive sexual behaviours
Talking to your child about sex can be really difficult, but it’s important and can help them to understand positive sexual behaviours and how to reject sexual activities, habits and conversations that make them feel uncomfortable. Even if your child is yet to learn about sex, the key messages around positive sexual behaviours can be applied to other, non-sexual situations.
 
There isn't a perfect time to start these conversations but it's usually better to start sooner rather than later. It is certainly a good idea to do this when they reach puberty or start to learn about sex at school. Take a look at the advice here on talking about sex and relationships.
 
There are a few important principles that you could explore with your child using relatable, non-sexual examples:

Shared enthusiasm

People should only do things that they are both genuinely enthusiastic about.
Example: You wouldn’t make your friend eat food that they didn’t like even if you like that kind of food.

Equality

Sexual activity takes place in equal relationships, in which people are equally able to agree to, say no to, and withdraw from the activity without fear of negative consequences.
Example: If you offer your friend a cup of tea, they can say yes, or no, or only drink half, or change their mind and not want it anymore, and all of these are ok. You wouldn’t be mad at your friend for saying no, or deciding not to drink all of their tea.

Empathy

Before, during and after, think about the other person's feelings.
Example: When planning a day out with a friend, you would naturally think about both what you would like to do and what they would like to – you’d also pick up on signals from them that they are having a good time or not, and act on these.

Communication

People should check in with one another about their feelings and preferences.

Example: if you invite a friend round for dinner, you would check what food they like and don’t like.

Knowledge

A clear awareness of who the other person is.
Example: kisses and cuddles are for people who you know and like.
 
Keep in mind that these principles are even more important in sexual situations, where the potential for hurt is much higher (for example, having a bad day out with a friend is not nearly as bad as having an unwanted sexual experience).

If you’re worried your child is displaying harmful sexual behaviour

It can be difficult to know if your child’s behaviour is harmful, or whether it’s just a normal part of growing up. Brook, a sexual health & wellbeing charity for under 25s, created a traffic light tool to help professionals understand age-appropriate sexual behaviours. Although it was designed for professionals it can be a helpful tool for parents to help you decide if your child’s behaviour is healthy for their age.
 
Concerning behaviours might...
  • Involve age, developmental or power differences

  • Use trickery or deception

  • Minimise another person’s feelings

  • Use coercion or pressure

  • Lack of consent from another person

  • Involve putting someone down

How you respond to their behaviour will obviously depend on the sort of activity, the context and the frequency with which it occurs.

What next?

It’s completely natural to feel upset or angry if you think that your child’s behaviour may be harmful. You’ll probably need some time to process this, but talking to your child about their behaviour can help them to start making positive changes. Don’t panic – your child’s sexual behaviour may be unhealthy now but it is not likely to persist into adulthood. Research shows that the majority of children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour do not continue to do so.
 
Here are some tips for addressing this difficult topic:
  • Take time to plan – they might play things down with statements like ‘It’s just a joke’, it can help to have a response lined up ready to challenge them.

  • Challenge the behaviour without shaming them. Encourage them to open up and think critically about their behaviour.

  • If they become defensive, don’t let it stop you sharing your thoughts. Research shows that when people argue back when challenged about their attitudes, they often still mentally shift them.

  • Provide them with the facts about how their behaviour might make someone else feel.
  • Stay positive and let them know that there’s always a way forward.


Services that can help

  • If you think your child would benefit from talking to a counsellor, Childline can talk to them about anything. They can speak to someone online or by calling 0800 1111.

  • If you’re concerned that a child is being sexually abused, or at risk of sexual abuse, we recommend that you report your concerns to NCA-CEOP or to the police.

  • If your child is displaying harmful sexual behaviour, you can call the Stop it now! helpline on 0808 1000 900 for free, expert advice.

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Action

NCA-CEOP Safety Centre

Are you worried about online sexual abuse or the way someone has been communicating with you online?

Visit the safety centre

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