20.5 Recognition of Abuse by a Child or Young Person
Last updated 12/11/2018
Recognition of Abuse by a Child or Young Person
Exploration during childhood is a normal part of development, and it is important that those working with children and families develop an understanding of age appropriate sexual behaviour.
Developmental Stages of Sexual Behaviour
These five stages are intended as a guide only – (for more detail please see AIM U12’s Assessment and Intervention Manual):
a. 0-4 years. Exploratory behaviours emerge - touch taste, looking, hugs and kisses. Periods of inhibition and disinhibition occur i.e. wandering round naked. They imitate and copy behaviours of life around them including ‘mummies and daddies’ and ‘doctors and nurses’. Random masturbation can occur as this is a sensual stage in development. The distinction between toileting behaviours and comforting behaviours begins to emerge. Parents and carers are most influential, and children learn the social rules and what is permissible from them;
b. 5-7 years. More exploratory behaviour with peers occurs, and there is comparison with others bodies and more questions. Masturbation is less random but more likely among boys due to gender socialisation. There is an increased desire for privacy. They know rude words and provoke reaction from adults although they might not understand the meanings. They are increasing their understanding of the taboos around sexual talk and behaviour. The influence of peers is beginning to emerge;
c. 8-12 years. Cognitively children can understand and process information they gain, and they are learning about sex, procreation and bodies. Sexual language will have progressed and swear words will be learned and repeated although not necessarily with an understanding of the meaning. Myths about sex flourish at this age. The onset of puberty begins, with some young people will showing an interest in sexual activity at petting level. Competitive comparison of bodies begins. A few will progress on from petting. A development of anxiety about appearance and likability occurs. Those who are gay or lesbian begin to define themselves as feeling different and will feel pressure to conform. Peers and media significant influence at this stage.
d. 13-15 years. The beginning of the grown up phase. Young people are gaining fully developed adult bodies. Some may have practiced low level petting behaviours and some might be moving onto advanced sexual behaviours. Emotional romantic attachments become important. There is a pressure to be seen to be knowledgeable. Anxiety is still present about status and performance. Peers and media provide a strong influence, and young people can be embarrassed to discuss questions or concerns with adults;
e. 16-18 years. Adult phase. Knowledge language and behaviours present are common. And there is competition with peers in these areas. The need for intimacy and emotional closeness is more important now. There is a return to the sensual stage - hugs and kisses reinforce attachments, along with sexual desire and pleasure. Young people can revisit cultural scripts of caregivers at this stage.
A Continuum of Sexual Behaviours from Healthy to Harmful
Not all sexual behaviours displayed by children/ young people are healthy; some are harmful and some fall within a mid- range (problematic) which are not the most worrying but nevertheless cause an issue. The term problematic is used to indicate that the behaviour is problematic for someone whether for the child or young person themselves or someone else who is uncomfortable with the invasion of their personal space by a child/adolescent with little sense of boundaries.
The following behaviours give a general indication of categories and are more applicable to younger children:
Healthy sexual behaviours are:
- Exploratory and age appropriate;
- No intent to cause harm;
- Fun, humorous;
- No power differential between participants.
Problematic sexual behaviours are:
- Displaying behaviours not age appropriate - e.g. invasion of personal space, sexual swear word in very young children;
- Some ‘one off’ incidents of low-key behaviours such a touching over clothing;
- Incidents where there is peer pressure to engage in the behaviour e.g. touching someone’s breast, exposure of bottom;
- Behaviours are spontaneous rather than planned;
- They may be self-directed such as masturbation;
- There are other balancing factors such as lack of intent to cause harm, or level of understanding in the young person about the behaviours, or some remorse;
- The child or young person targeted may be irritated or uncomfortable but not scared and feel free to tell someone;
- Parental concern and interested in supporting the child to change.
Harmful sexual behaviours are:
- Not age appropriate;
- Elements of planning secrecy or force;
- Power differentials between young people involved such as size status and strength;
- Targeted children feel fear anxiety discomfort;
- Negative feelings are expressed by the young person when carrying out the behaviour e.g. anger aggression;
- The young person does not take responsibility for the behaviour and blames others or feels a strong sense of grievance;
- Incidents are increasing in frequency and the young person’s interest in them is disproportionate to other aspects of their life;
- They are not easily distracted from the behaviour, it appears compulsive ad is persistent despite intervention.
There are often difficult behaviours such as conduct disorder, problems with anger management, anxiety, clingy, aggression, disruption, poor peer relationships in evidence alongside sexually inappropriate behaviours. Neglect emotional abuse and poor attachments with parents and siblings, little empathy, disrupted patterns of care and loss of significant person and lack of role models are often features in harmful sexual behaviours.
(See also Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool for more useful guidance on this subject of sexual behaviours. These indicators are a guide and do not replace, but should assist, the exercise of professional judgement.)
The Difference Between Inappropriate Behaviour And When It Becomes Harmful Sexual Behaviour
In respect of sexual behaviours, there are sometimes perceived to be difficulties in distinguishing between normal childhood sexual development and experimentation and sexually inappropriate or aggressive behaviour. The above indicators should be used as a guide only. Sometimes expert professional judgement may be needed within the context of knowledge about normal child sexuality. Referral and assessment units or Safeguarding Children Units can provide specific advice.
It is also important that whilst responding to all incidents we do not over-react to the presenting situation as this can have long term consequences for the child, e.g. becoming ashamed about their sexuality or closing down opportunities for them to develop and explore normal sexuality.
If a young person is under the age of 13 years old, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 they cannot legally consent to any form of sexual activity. Therefore a child protection referral is required in all such cases.
Non-Exploitative Sexual Behaviour - Action in Relation to 13, 14 and 15 Year Olds
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 reinforces that, whilst mutually agreed, non-exploitative sexual activity between teenagers does take place and that often no harm comes from it, the age of consent should still remain at 16. This acknowledges that this group of young people is still vulnerable, even when they do not view themselves as such.
A child protection referral or referral to the police is not mandatory in all cases of sexual activity involving a child under the age of 16 years of age but an assessment (including whether the children are Gillick Competent using Fraser Competent guidelines) in line with these procedures must be undertaken by the professionals making these decisions. The assessment should consider the young person’s competency to give consent, and of the nature of the relationship. Consider any differences of age, maturity, level of development, functioning and experience and also the awareness of the potential consequences of their act.