Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse

The term 'sexual exploitation' is often used to refer to the sexual abuse of children during adolescence. This is the time when they are rapidly changing and developing, both sexually and emotionally. They may be dreaming of having boyfriends or girlfriends and, while they want to act like adults, they lack the knowledge and experience to recognise when an abusive adult or young person is taking advantage of them. All this makes young people particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Download our leaflet on child sexual exploitation

Signs and indicators that a young person may be at risk:

  • Skipping school, coming home late or staying out overnight with no explanation
  • Change in appearance, or overt sexualised dress
  • Disengaging from family, friends and other support networks
  • Becoming secretive
  • Changing peer groups
  • Unexplained money or gifts, including mobile phones
  • Gang member or association with gangs

Signs that something is wrong:

  • Regularly going missing
  • Offending behaviour
  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Being seen in different cars, perhaps with different older people
  • Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour
  • Having a much older boyfriend / girlfriend
  • An increase in physical ailments and/or an increase in contact with healthcare
  • Suffering from sexually transmitted diseases
  • Pregnancy and/or terminations
  • Self-harming
  • Sexualised risk taking (including on the internet)
  • Spending a lot time online
  • Being seen in 'hotspots' (known houses or recruiting grounds)
  • Truancy/exclusion from school
  • Staying out overnight with no explanation

There may be many reasons for changes in a young person's behaviour, but if we notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to seek help or advice.

what can we do to prevent it?

Know the signs - and be alert

'Warning sign' is another way of saying 'opportunity to prevent and protect'. Acting on signs early can prevent abuse from happening or escalating. Look out for changes in behaviour and think about the guidance below.

Ensure lines of communication are open

Children and young people need to know they can talk to us about anything that is bothering them - even if they think we will be upset or cross. Abusers often rely on the victim feeling shame or guilt to keep them silent. Be in the habit of talking to your child about their experiences, their friends and what they get up to. As children grow up conversations should include topics such as what are healthy/unhealthy relationships.

Get to know what they know

At the onset of puberty children can find it difficult to talk to adults, particularly their parents, about sex and relationships. Parents can find it equally hard to talk to their child. Know what sex and relationship education your child is getting at school so that you can reinforce positive messages and fill any gaps. Useful resources for young people include:- and You could look these up together so your child knows where to go if they want to.

Know their friends

Knowing our children's friends enables us to monitor who is likely to be a positive influence on them and we can encourage them to take care of each other. Strong friendships also mean your child's friends are more likely to tell someone if your child is getting into trouble. Secrecy around friends could indicate unsuitability.

Listen to children and young people

Listen to children and young people and look out for things they may be showing (warning signs in their behaviour), rather than telling. Off-hand comments could trigger a concern and difficult behaviour could be a sign that something is wrong.

Take an active interest in their online life

Take as much interest in your child's online life as their offline one because abusers can use the internet to groom their victims. Talk about the sites they use, talk about the importance of not giving out personal information and not meeting anyone in person they have only met online. Talk about the dangers of posting sexual images online, and of 'sexting' (the sending or receiving of sexual images via text message).

Take time

Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation if their emotional needs are not being met and they feel they have no one they can talk to. Regular conversations give children the opportunity to talk about concerns they have sooner rather than later. You can use story lines on popular soap operas or news items to talk about sexual abuse and give your child the message they can talk to you about anything.

If you think your child is associating with potentially abusive people

Collecting as much identifying information as possible such as car registration numbers and descriptions of people can assist the police to intervene if necessary. Keep a diary of events such as times your child has gone missing or unexplained phone calls they have received. If a child or young person is in immediate danger, call 999 or contact your local police.If you are concerned that a child is at risk of sexual exploitation, discuss your concerns with family, friends, the school or others in your child's life.

The Stop It Now! helpline provides confidential advice on 0808 1000 900. You can also contact local Children's Services teams directly.

Taking early action can prevent a child from being abused.

Useful resources

We also have more information on other useful organisations.

Create a Family Safety

A family safety plan can help to protect children by creating a safer environment where they can discuss worries, set boundaries and get help.

Learn More

Warning signs in adults & children

Understanding the warning signs of sexual abuse in both adults and children is important to help children to stay safe. Watch our learning programme to find out more.

Learn More

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse is a difficult subject to think and talk about, but by learning and understanding more we can better protect children and prevent harm.

Learn More

What to do if a child tells about abuse

It can be difficult to know how to respond if a child tells you about abuse - we can help you to respond in a sensitive and appropriate way.

Learn More

Video: Exploited

Exploited is an 18-minute film which has been created to help young people learn to stay safe from sexual exploitation. It educates young people to identify features of an exploitative friendship or relationship in contrast with the development of a healthy relationship, and gives them clear information about how to report abuse and access support. It was created by CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection).

PLEASE NOTE: While this is an educational resource about Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) which should be delivered to young people in the context of a lesson, by professionals in the children's workforce - parents and carers will benefit from viewing as it helps understand what we mean by sexual exploitation. If you are a professional working with young people and would like to access the free Exploited resource pack please visit (login required):