Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.” (derived from Hackett, 2014).  It is vital for professionals to distinguish normal from abnormal sexual behaviours. Chaffin et al (2002, p208) suggest a child’s sexual behaviour should be considered abnormal if it:

– occurs at a frequency greater than would be developmentally expected

– interferes with the child’s development

– occurs with coercion, intimidation, or force

– is associated with emotional distress

– occurs between children of divergent ages or developmental abilities

– repeatedly recurs in secrecy

Hackett (2010) has proposed a continuum model to demonstrate the range of sexual behaviours presented by children and young people, from those that are normal, to those that are highly deviant.  This continuum is set out within an evidence-informed tool for developing coordinated, multi-agency local responses to children and young people’s harmful sexual behaviour. Hackett, S, Holmes, D and Branigan, P (2016) Operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours, London, NSPCC.

Children and young people who develop harmful sexual behaviour have usually experienced abuse and neglect themselves (Hackett et al, 2013; Hawkes 2009; McCartan et al, 2011).  A study by Hackett et al (2013) of children and young people with harmful sexual behaviour suggests that two-thirds had experienced some kind of abuse or trauma.  Reflecting the context of the wider vulnerabilities set out within this strategy, such abuse and trauma includes physical abuse / emotional abuse / sexual abuse / severe neglect / parental rejection / family breakdown / domestic violence / parental drug and alcohol abuse.  Around half of them had experienced sexual abuse.  Family histories and backgrounds can have an impact on the sexual behaviour of children.