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It’s important to recognise that young people who are identified as being abusive may have an underlying need being unmet. These needs should be considered separately from those of the person being abused. Those causing harm should be supported to understand the impact of their behaviour. The NSPCC explains:

‘The majority of children who display harmful sexual behaviour have themselves experienced trauma, including abuse or neglect.’

It can be very challenging for schools to balance the needs of the victim and the person who has caused them harm if they attend the same school or college. Ofsted has recommended that schools need clearer guidance regarding long-term investigations of harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) or when a criminal investigation doesn’t lead to prosecution or conviction. 

Government guidance

It’s worth noting that statutory guidance also applies to incidents that happen outside of school, including online: 

‘Abuse that occurs online or outside of the school or college should not be downplayed and should be treated equally seriously.’

Current guidance also states:

  1. A behaviour policy should include measures to prevent child-on-child abuse and the response to incidents of such abuse. 
  2. ‘Schools should be clear in every aspect of their culture that sexual violence and sexual harassment are never acceptable, and will not be tolerated and that pupils whose behaviour falls below expectations will be sanctioned.’
  3. ‘Responding assertively to sexually inappropriate behaviour is an important intervention that helps prevent challenging, abusive and/or violent behaviour.’ 

Verge of Harming

“Young people who display harmful sexual behaviour often experience other emotional, behavioural and peer-related difficulties.”

In 2023 SafeLives published their ‘Verge of Harming’ report, exploring abuse in young people’s relationships, and support for young people who harm. 30% of young people they surveyed said they had used harmful behaviours in a relationship. These were some of their other key findings:

  • Young people provided a range of reasons or justification for harmful behaviour, including:
    • Trust issues – feeling insecure, fear of rejection, a means to maintain a relationship.
    • Emotional dysregulation – inability to manage big emotions. 
    • Adverse experiences – linked to their own experience of trauma, the ‘normalisation of harm’. 
    • In response to someone else’s unwanted behaviour – violent resistance, as a form of punishment. 
    • Power – a means to gain power and control, for their enjoyment. 
  • Young people and practitioners felt that conversations around healthy and unhealthy relationships should start before young people begin to have romantic relationships. 
  • Things young people felt would have helped them not to harm included:
    • Having a space to discuss their behaviours and get advice. 
    • Being about to reflect on their own thoughts and actions. 

One of the report’s recommendations was that the response to young people who harm should be supportive rather than solely punitive, ensuring that ‘when consequences/punishment are a necessary response…this does not happen without support and behaviour change work also being provided.’ 


The Lucy Faithfull Foundation has developed a ‘Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) prevention toolkit.’

The Respect Young People’s Service supports professionals to respond effectively to young people’s use of violence and abuse in family and intimate relationships. They offer training to practitioners to support the delivery of a toolkit aimed at reducing the harm caused by abuse in teenage and intimate relationships. 


Young people who use harmful behaviours are often reluctant to ask for support. It’s important to let young people know that help is available. 

Respect UK leads on the development of safe, effective work with perpetrators, male victims, and young people using violence in their close relationships.