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NICE report on children who display harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)

NICE have issued advice for professionals including health care providers, youth offending teams, community police officers and schools. The guidance relates to children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour. It sets out proposals to prevent the escalation of problems that could lead to criminal charges whilst at the same time ensuring children and young people are not unfairly stigmatized and are not referred to specialist services where it is unnecessary.


There is currently no national strategy or framework for dealing with harmful sexual behaviour. These guidelines provide approaches to be taken by professionals in various situations and suggest inappropriate sexualised behaviour, which can include sexting, is often an expression of problems or underlying vulnerabilities. It recommends assessment tools be used to assess the level of intervention needed.

Children and young people’s sexual behaviour problems are diverse….The committee agreed with evidence from expert paper 1, and members’ own experience, that many children and young people’s display of harmful sexual behaviour will naturally come to an end as they mature. But members also agreed that concerns about a child or young person’s sexualised behaviour should always be followed up and assessed’ [page 25]

 The guidelines include recommendations on:

  • multi-agency approach and universal services
  • early help assessment
  • risk assessment for children and young people referred to harmful sexual behaviour services
  • engaging with families and carers before an intervention begins
  • developing and managing a care plan for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour
  • developing interventions for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour
  • supporting a return to the community for ‘accommodated’ children and young people

The guidelines use the NSPCC definition of harmful sexual behaviour to avoid labelling children and young people as sex offenders.

The report recommends that more long term evidence is needed  on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour to understand when to intervene in order to avoid mislabelling younger children as sexual offenders and subjecting them to stigmatising and intrusive interventions.

Read the full guidance: Harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people.


The issue of ‘sexting’ and other displays of ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ in children and young people has become more prominent in recent years with the increase in social media and other technologies. These guidelines highlight the issues faced by professionals when determining the most appropriate approach to take. Recently, however,  the  focus seems to be increasingly on prevention, awareness, support and the welfare of the child rather than punishment.

This report is yet another example of the trend in taking a more proportionate, child and age centred approach to incidents of harmful sexual behaviour and avoiding the criminalisation of children and young people were appropriate.