Webinar & Q+A: Understanding and responding to children who display sexually concerning behaviour

Laura Walker & Carol Laugharne, authors of Helping Children to Learn About Safer Sexual Behaviour conducted a webinar on Understanding and responding to children who display sexually concerning behaviour. Here you can view a recording of the webinar and read their responses to some frequently asked questions on this topic.

View a recording of the webinar hosted by Laura Walker and Carol Laugharne below on the topic of 'Understanding and responding to children who display sexually concerning behaviour'.

Laura and Carol also answer some burning questions on children with sexually concerning behaviour below.

Why do children display sexually worrying/concerning behaviour?

As there is such a range of concerning and harmful behaviours and due to the diversity of children and their experiences there is no definitive and concise answer to this question. There are many contributing factors which lead to sexually concerning behaviour. We provide some context to this in the resource pack and state that young children my display these sorts of behaviours for a number of reasons, such as children:

  • Accidentally viewing inappropriate material and then ‘trying out’ or copying the behaviour
  • Being dared or encouraged by other similar aged children
  • Being upset or worried about a change in their lives such as moving home or school, the arrival of a new sibling, the bereavement of a relative or pet, the arrival of a new adult in the home and/or their parents separating
  • Dealing with the onset of puberty causing confusion. Having learning difficulties and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or being on the Autistic Spectrum perhaps prompting impulsive, inappropriate behaviours.
  • Issues around poor attachment and trauma experiences
  • Being a victim of sexual abuse themselves

It is unlikely that such reasons will be clearly evident or revealed by the children themselves and questioning children as to ‘why’ they are doing something will not be helpful since they will more than likely be unable to vocalise their reasons or understand their behaviours.

Where a child is displaying more adult like and harmful behaviours such as penetrative behaviours using force or coercion then a referral to a specialist service would be necessary and any concerns about neglect or abuse or domestic violence will need to be investigated.

Further reading
Hackett, S. (2004) What Works for Children and Young People with Sexually Harmful Behaviour?, Barkingside, Barnardo’s.
Hackett, S. (2001) Facing The Future: A Guide for parents of young people who sexually abuse, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing.

Is it mainly boys who display sexually concerning behaviour?

A much higher percentage of boys display sexually concerning behaviour than girls, however this does not mean that girls do not display the behaviour. Research published by the Taith Barnardo’s service in Wales found that referrals had increased from around 8% to between 11 and 13% and there has been an increase in referrals of girls to specialist services nationally.

The increase can be attributed to previous under reporting and more awareness of the issue affecting girls. The rise could also be due to the accessibility to pornography too as we know that a high percentage of young people are accessing pornography either accidentally or seeking it out to learn about sex.

The research regarding girls who have displayed more serious/harmful sexually concerning behaviour shows that girls are more likely to have been victims of sexual abuse and experienced significant levels of adversity. Our resource pack is aimed at younger children with LOW LEVEL sexually concerning behaviour and the activities and methods used are appropriate to use with girls and boys.

Useful reading
Moultrie, D. and Beckett, R. (2011) Taith Service: 10 Year Review, Barnardo’s.
Office of The Children’s Commissioner (2014) Basically Porn is Everywhere: A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effect that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People, London, Office of The Children’s Commissioner.
Masson, H., Hackett, S., Phillips, J. and Balfe, M. (2012) Developmental markers of risk or vulnerability? Young females who sexually abuse – characteristics, backgrounds, behaviours and outcomes, Child and Family Social Work.

How best can we work with children who have learning needs to learn safer behaviours?

Children with learning needs are over represented in referrals to services for sexually concerning behaviour. Reasons for this are that young people with learning needs can often be overlooked in sex education, they may not understand the onset of puberty and they may struggle to understand the sexual feelings they are experiencing and have less capacity in terms of social and cognitive skills etc.

Children and young people in this situation need a lot of support in terms of addressing these issues and require visual and pictorial resources to support their learning. Social stories can be useful to increase understanding and they also help to remind the young person of safe behaviours. There are examples of these within our resource pack.

We cannot emphasise enough that, in our experience, children and young people with learning needs will require ongoing help from the adults in their lives to remember the learning from an intervention and that a ‘one off’ piece of work is not likely to be sufficient to prevent further problems. Safety plans will useful which can provide a child friendly frame of reference for the child and family/care setting/foster home. Again there are examples of these within the resource pack which can be designed to the child’s favourite things/TV programmes and hobbies.

Useful resources
Gray, C., White, A. and McAndrew, S. (2002) My Social Stories, London and New York, Routledge.

Do children who display worrying sexual behaviour go on to become sex offenders?

There is a commonly held fear that when a child displays some sexually concerning behaviour he or she will continue to display this behaviour and it can escalate to more harmful and abusive behaviour. There is also a fear that the child will go on to become and ‘sex offender’. Whilst a very small percentage of children/young people do repeat the behaviour (around 4/5%) research shows and current expert opinions held are that the majority of children and young people do not go on to repeat the worrying behaviour.

Factors that are important which help young people move on to safer behaviours are:

  • Appropriate and timely interventions
  • Not pathologising the child/young person
  • Building on strengths and increasing ‘social anchors’ such as feelings of belong to a family, community, friendships.
  • A consistent relationship in the life of the child
  • Hope for the future
  • Social activities/interests/hobbies

Our resource pack and accompanying story book provides useful activities and a programme of work to undertake with young children and can provide an early intervention incorporating the evidenced good practice above.

Useful reading
Hackett, S. (2004) What Works for Children and Young People with Sexually Harmful Behaviour?, Barkingside, Barnardo’s.
Bateman, J. and Milner, J. (2015) Children and Young People Whose Behaviour is Sexually Concerning or Harmful: Assessing Risk and Developing Safety Plans, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

- Laura Walker & Carol Laugharne

Featured Title

  • Helping Children to Learn About Safer Sexual Behaviour

    A Narrative Approach to Working with Young Children and Sexually Concerning Behaviour, 1st Edition

    By Laura Walker, Carol Laugharne

    This unique resource comprises a therapeutic workbook and storybook, designed to be used as an early intervention with children within the school setting who display concerning sexual behaviour. The workbook contains a series of activities with accompanying user-friendly advice including how to…

    Paperback – 2016-05-04


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