Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Often the thought of Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) can be unsettling and professionals can worry about how best to approach the subject or deal with emerging issues demonstrated by the young people they work with. One of the common issues people can have is that they struggle to identify which sexual behaviours are potentially harmful and which might represent healthy sexual development.

Here’s a quick guide to responding to an incident; 

  1. What is it?
  2. How serious is it?
  3. Why do I need to take action?
  4. What do I do now? 

What is it?

Harmful Sexual Behaviours (HSB) are defined as; 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.

How serious is it?

It’s important to remember that sexualised behaviours occur on a continuum from normal to inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent and that to ensure consistency in responding to an incident is taken, a standardised approach should be used to identify where the behaviour sits on this continuum. For that reason the City of York Council use the Brook Traffic Light Tool to identify whether the behaviour reflects healthy and safe development (Green) where it has the potential to be outside of health and safe development (Amber) and where they are outside of safe and healthy behaviour (Red). The tool can be found here.

Using the Traffic Light tool also gives clarity on how to respond and aids the determination of defensible decisions about safeguarding children and young people. Using the tool also helps professionals to assess and respond appropriately to sexual behaviour in children and young people and understand healthy sexual development and distinguish it from harmful behaviour.

Why do I need to take action?

It’s important that incidents of HSB are not ignored and that they are responded to in a timely and consistent manner. Early intervention in cases of harmful sexual behaviour can enable young people to adopt a healthy development pathways and proceed to make healthy relationships.

Taking decisive steps to respond to HSB helps to;

  • Identify potential risk of repeated harmful sexual behaviour
  • Identify risks to either the child/young person carrying out the behaviours or their actual/potential victim(s)
  • Identify the child/young person’s needs including immediate sexual health needs
  • Assess the child/young person’s motivation and capacity to engage in services and plans
  • Identify the capacity of the parents/carers to manage and support the child/young person

What do I do now?

If concerns around HSB are identified by a professional or a disclosure of potential HSB is made to a professional then in the first instance the Brook Traffic Light tool should be used to identify whether the behaviour lies within the Green, Amber or Red categories. Normally green behaviour can be responded to through direct interaction with the child or young person and the giving of information, advice and explanation of boundaries with guidance including issues of privacy and consent. There may be instances in which if there is an absence of direct/indirect victims, Amber behaviours also result in a single agency response through targeted intervention, advice or guidance. If the agency or individual who become aware of the issue is unsure as to how to respond or the correct category of the behaviour the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) should be contacted on 01904 551900. The Mash will be able to offer advice and can then signpost to other professionals and/or agencies including the Youth Justice Service and those in the voluntary sector to provide information and resources to use to work with the young person displaying the HSB and those impacted by the behaviour. Further advice can be found at https://www.saferchildrenyork.org.uk  

If behaviour is found to fall within the Amber or Red categories and there is concern that a child, young person or an adult might have been harmed by the behaviour of the child or young person then the behaviour should be reported to the Police if it has not already been done so. Allegations of peer abuse should be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult. In cases of peer on abuse both young people will need to be considered and allocated separate Social Workers.

What Happens next?

A lot depends on whether there is going to be a police investigation or prosecution. If there is, then the young person will be supported through the process and the Youth Justice Service will ensure that any identified HSB will be assessed and appropriate intervention delivered at the earliest opportunity. However where it is concluded it is either not in the public interest to do so or there is insufficient evidence to charge then there remains the need to address the identified HSB though targeted HSB intervention.

In April 2019 the Youth Justice Service (YJS) launched a Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) Service seeking to provide intervention work with young people around identified HSB concerns that had not resulted in ongoing police investigation or prosecution.

The Youth Justice Service has the opportunity to engage with children and young people displaying these behaviours with the aim of preventing offending and reducing re-offending. Using identification, assessment and intervention tools such as the Brook Traffic light tool and AIM3, the primary objective of Youth Justice Service intervention remains at all times the protection of victims, potential victims and the avoidance of any repetition of inappropriate or harmful behaviour. Government findings indicate that those young people offered early intervention benefit from the child centred approach of youth justice practitioners and their chances of rehabilitation improve. Such intervention can enable young people to adopt a healthy development pathway and proceed to make healthy future relationships.

The Youth Justice Service currently only take referrals for the HSB service directly from Children’s Social Care. The following information will be required on the referral before it is accepted by the Youth Justice Service.

  • Basic information and contact details including phone numbers                                                               
  • Confirmation of written consent from the young person and family for the referral                                  
  • Full details of all incidents of alleged Harmful Sexual Behaviour                                                                    
  • Indication of the Brook Traffic Light tool outcome                                                                                      
  • Concerns around Risk to others including to professionals                                                                                         
  • Safety and Wellbeing concerns                                                                                                                       
  • Education, Training or Employment details

Written consent from the young person and parents/ carers for the referral to the Youth Justice Service HSB Service will be required.  Referral forms are available upon contacting the Youth Justice Service on 01904 554565 and completed referrals should be emailed to yot.admin@york.gov.uk.


CYSCP provides online and face to face training for practitioners

Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) Procedure

For further information and guidance please look at the CYSCP HSB Procedure

Useful Links


CYSCP pdf with useful links

Contextual Safeguarding Research Programme

NSPCCSexual Behaviour in children

Home Office Disrepect Nobody campaign

DfE Keeping children safe in education

Brook Traffic Light Tool

MESMAC offers one to one support for LGBTQ and those questioning young people aged 14-25. This includes support around sexual health and support with coming out and peer support within a youth group.   The youth group sessions cover some targeted work, such as online safety, what's makes a healthy relationship.  

Harmful Sexual Behaviour

NSPCC resources for HSB

NSPCC HSB Framework

NICE Harmful Sexual Behaviour guidelines

Centre of Expertise on child sexual abuse research

Thinkuknow warning signs


Online Safety/Sexting

“‘TA-HSB’ refers to one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts - using the internet and / or any image-creating / sharing or communication device -which is considered inappropriate and / or harmful given their age or stage of development.” (Hollis & Belton, 2017)

Child Exploitation and Online Protection

Net Aware

Safe Internet - Your guide to staying safe online

NSPCC Sexting guidance

Useful Documents

Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours Simon Hackett Research in Pratcice


 Belton, E. and Hollis, V. (2016) A review of the research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour online: what is developmentally appropriate online sexual behaviour, do children and young people with online versus offline harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) differ, and is there an association between online and offline HSB? London: NSPCC


Hollis, V. and Belton, E. (2017) Children and young people who engage in technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour; a study of their behaviours, backgrounds and characteristics. London: NSPCC


That Difficult Age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence: Evidence Scope (2015) Hanson E, Holmes D https://www.rip.org.uk/resources/publications/evidence-scopes/that-difficult-age-developing-a-more-effective-response-to-risks-in-adolescence-evidence-scope-2015

“Everyone deserves to be happy and safe” A mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis Elly Hanson Helen Whittle Anthony Beec.h November 2017


Government guidance sexting in schools and colleges


Hackett, S, Branigan, P and Holmes, D (2019). Harmful sexual behaviour framework: an evidence-informed operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours, second edition, London, NSPCC.


Harmful sexual behaviour in schools: a briefing on the findings, implications and resources for schools and multi-agency partners Jenny Lloyd, Joanne Walker and Vanessa Bradbury June 2020


Completing the Harmful sexual behaviour framework audit tool. A guide for designated safeguarding leads in health



Useful documents