The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published its first guidance on helping children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour.
Harmful sexual behaviour occurs when children or young people engage in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or development.
NICE asks healthcare workers to look out for sexual themes in play in young children and “sexting” among young people, along with other behaviours.
Many will naturally grow out of these behaviours, so whilst it is important they are not unnecessarily stigmatised, their actions should also not be ignored.
In the cases of a small number of children and young people who commit sexual offences there is evidence that shows early opportunities to address their behaviours were missed.
The guideline calls for a joined-up approach by universal services, child health services, children’s social services and the voluntary sector when responding to concerns about a child or young person’s sexual behaviour.
Recommendations in the guidance include advising practitioners to use risk assessment tools that are suitable for the child’s developmental age and gender, and advising them to engage with families and carers before beginning an intervention.
The guidance also suggests appointing named safeguarding leads in universal services such as schools, who should use locally agreed resources to assess concerns about sexual behaviour in children.
NICE also identifies the need for further research into the impact electronic media has on sexual behaviour.
Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive of NICE, said: “Inquisitive behaviour is a normal part of growing up and it is natural for children to ask about different body parts or be curious about the differences between girls and boys.
“However there is also a minority of children and young people who engage in sexual behaviour that is not appropriate for their age or development.
“This guidance is about preparing teachers, nurses, social workers and others to recognise harmful sexual behaviour when it occurs and ensure they can work across team boundaries so that problem behaviour is not ignored or missed and children and young people receive the help they need.”
The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool is recommended to help gauge the severity of the behaviour.
The Brook tool identifies a range of sexual behaviours between infancy and adulthood and distinguishes between their seriousness using a traffic light system.
Jon Brown, head of development and impact at NSPCC and member of the guideline development group, said: “Harmful sexual behaviour has gone under the radar for too long.
“There are three key messages in this guidance: that children and young people should be treated as just that, not as mini sex offenders; that the approach should be shaped to the individual, it’s not a one size fits all process; and finally that steps to change behaviour will only be effective if the family and support network understand there is an issue and are supportive.”