We are becoming increasingly aware of the risk of sexual abuse that some adults present to our children and there is a growing understanding that this risk lies mostly within families and communities. But very few people realise that other children can sometimes present a risk. A third of those who have sexually abused a child are themselves under the age of 18.
This is an especially difficult issue to deal with, partly because it is hard for us to think of children doing such things, but also because it is not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual exploration and abusive behaviour. Children, particularly in the younger age groups, may engage in such behaviour with no knowledge that it is wrong or abusive. For this reason, it may be more accurate to talk about sexually harmful behaviour rather than abuse.
Why do some children sexually harm others?
The reasons why children sexually harm others are complicated and not always obvious. Some of them have been emotionally, sexually or physically abused themselves, while others may have witnessed physical or emotional violence at home. For some children it may be a passing phase, but the harm they cause to other children can be serious and some will go on to abuse children in adulthood if they do not receive help. For this reason it is vital to seek advice and help as soon as possible.
Age appropriate sexual behaviour
We all know that children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and that their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters change as they pass from infancy into childhood and then through puberty to adolescence.
Each child is an individual and will develop in his or her own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child's age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of similar age. It can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour. Occasionally we may need to explain to children why we would prefer them not to continue with a particular behaviour. This is a chance to talk with them about keeping themselves and others safe and to let them know that you are someone who will listen.
Disabled children may develop at different rates, depending on the nature of their disability, and they can be more vulnerable to abuse. Children with learning disabilities, for example, may behave sexually in ways that are out of step with their age. Particular care may be needed in educating such children to understand their sexual development and to ensure that they can communicate effectively about any worries they have.
It is important to recognise that while people from different backgrounds have different expectations about what is acceptable behaviour in children, sexual abuse happens across all races and cultures.
Remember that each child develops and at his or her own pace and not every child will show the behaviours described below. If you have any worries or questions about a child you know, talk to someone about it. Your health visitor, GP or child's teacher may be able to help, or you could ring the Stop it Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900.
Download our Traffic Light Tool leaflet for parents and carers - Children Under 5:
- Helping you understand the sexual development of children under the age of 5 (1.5MB)
- Download the Welsh version of this leaflet (1.5MB)
This leaflet is designed to help give you, as a parent or carer, guidance and information to help you understand more about the difference between healthy and developmentally expected sexual exploration and play in children under 5, and behaviour that is not appropriate and can cause harm to others or increase a child's vulnerability.
Pre-school children (0-5 years) commonly:
- Use childish 'sexual' language to talk about body parts
- Ask how babies are made and where they come from
- Touch or rub their own genitals
- Show and look at private parts
- Discuss sexual acts or use sexually explicit language
- Have physical sexual contact with other children
- Show adult-like sexual behaviour or knowledge
Download our Traffic Light Tool leaflet for parents and carers - Children Aged 5-11:
- Helping you understand the sexual development of children aged 5-11 (1.5MB)
- Download the Welsh language version of this leaflet (1.5MB)
This leaflet is designed to help give you, as a parent or carer, guidance and information to help you understand more about the difference between healthy and developmentally expected sexual exploration and play, in children aged 5-11 years, and behaviour that is not appropriate and can cause harm to others or increase a child's vulnerability.
School-age children (6-12 years) commonly:
- Ask questions about menstruation, pregnancy and other sexual behaviour
- Experiment with other children, often during games, kissing, touching, showing and role playing e.g. mums and dads or doctors and nurses
- Masturbate in private
- Masturbate in public
- Show adult like sexual behaviour or knowledge
- Ask questions about relationships and sexual behaviour
- Use sexual language and talk between themselves about sexual acts
- Masturbate in private
- Experiment sexually with adolescents of similar age
- Masturbate in public
- Have sexual contact with much younger children of adults
NB. About one-third of adolescents have sexual intercourse before the age of 16.
Traffic Light Tools for Professionals
The above traffic light tool materials are designed for parents, carers and other protective adults. For materials designed for use with, and by, professionals please visit Brook: https://www.brook.org.uk/
Warning signs of sexually harmful behaviour
One of the hardest things for parents to discover is that their child may have sexually harmed or abused another child. In this situation, denial, shock and anger are normal reactions. If it is not responded to quickly and sensitively, the effect on the whole family can be devastating. For this reason it is vital to contact someone for advice about what to do as soon as you suspect that something is wrong. The positive message is that early help for the child or young person and their family can make a real difference. Evidence suggests that the earlier children can get help, the more change there is of preventing them moving on to more serious behaviour. It is important to be alert to the early warning signs that something is going wrong. If you are in this situation, remember that you are not alone. Many other parents have been through similar experiences, and, as a result, the child and family found the help they needed are were able to rebuild their lives. The first step is to decide that it would be helpful to talk it over with someone else. The Stop it Now! helpline is available for this support on 0808 1000 900.
Do you know a child or adolescent who:
- Seeks out the company of younger children and spends an unusual amount of time in their company?
- Takes younger children to 'secret' places or hideaways or plays 'special' games with them (e.g. doctor and patient, removing clothing etc) especially games unusual to their age?
- Insists on hugging or kissing a child when the child does not want to?
- Tells you they do not want to be alone with a child or becomes anxious when a particular child comes to visit?
- Frequently uses aggressive or sexual language about adults or children?
- Shows sexual material to younger children?
- Makes sexually abusive telephone calls?
- Shares alcohol or drugs with younger children or teens?
- Views child pornography on the internet or elsewhere?
- Exposes his or her genitals to younger children?
- Forces sex on another adolescent or child?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should talk to the child or young person and seek advice.
What you can do if you see warning signs or suspect that your child is sexually harming another child, or thinking about doing so?
Create a family safety plan. Don't wait for 'proof' of child sexual abuse.
It is very disturbing to suspect that your child, or a child you know, may be sexually harming someone. It is so much easier to dismiss such thoughts and put them down to imagination. You may also be worried about the consequences of taking action. But help is available and it is better to talk the situation over with someone at the time, rather to discover later that you were right to be concerned. Remember you are not alone. Thousands of people every year discover that someone in their family or circle of friends has been abused or has abused a child.
If you are worried that your son or daughter may be sexually harming another child, or if you suspect that your child is being abused act now.
Action can lead to abuse being prevented, and children who are being abused receiving protection and help to recover. It can also lead to the abuser getting effective treatment to stop abusing and grow up as a safer member of our community. We need to get support for ourselves too.
Call the Stop it Now! Helpline on 0808 1000 900 to talk through any concerns or worries you have.
Visit the Lucy Faithfull Foundation for information on services for young people with concerning sexual behaviour and their families.
"Talking to my son was the best thing I could have done. I set a clear limit, I let him know it was wrong and I told him that I would not help him keep his secrets. I also let him know that I loved him, that he was not alone and that together we would find him help."
Mother of teenager who was sexually abusing.
"We couldn't understand at first why he hadn't told us. Now we know how confused he was. He felt that it was his fault, even though he hadn't wanted it to happen."
Parents of teenage boy who was abused by two friends.
"I didn't have the words to tell my parents what was going on. I said I didn't want to be left alone with kids. I wish they had listened to me..."
A sexually abusing adolescent.