Foster care
Carer guide
Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Children and young people may engage in sexual behaviour that is not normal for their age, and is harmful to themselves or others. This can be distressing, but you need to know how to respond if it occurs.

Why do some children and young people engage in harmful sexual behaviour?

Engaging in harmful sexual behaviour is a way that some children or young people have learned to respond to stress, to manage intense emotions or otherwise try to get a need met (e.g. lack of control, feeling unsafe, needing attachment, sensory regulation etc.). Children and young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour may also have been sexualised or exposed to adult sexual content - through sexual abuse, or through television and movies, the internet, mobile phones and/or witnessing the sexual acts of others.

Identifying harmful sexual behaviour

It’s vital that harmful sexual behaviour is identified and responded to early. It’s important not to minimise or dismiss the behaviour as experimentation, play or a phase.

When considering whether the child’s sexual behaviour is inappropriate, key considerations include:

  • developmental appropriateness (e.g. considered within normal range for the child’s age and developmental stage);
  • whether there is an age/developmental difference between the children involved;
  • cultural appropriateness;
  • frequency;
  • any fixation on the behaviour;
  • whether the child responds to re-direction;
  • whether the behaviour repeatedly occurs in secrecy after caregiver intervention;
  • whether the behaviours involve other children;
  • whether is there any use of coercion, force or intimidation;
  • whether the behaviour causes distress, interrupts the child’s social development, or causes physical injury;

Some examples of behaviour that is concerning include:

  • Compulsive masturbation, or masturbation in preference to other activities
  • Forcing other children or young people to engage in sexual activity
  • Touching genitals/private parts of animals after re-direction
  • Sexual behaviour with significantly younger or less abled children.

Find out more information about normal and harmful sexual behaviour

Sexual play versus harmful sexual behaviour

Most children engage in a wide variety of sexual behaviours. Generally, normal sexual exploration or play is developmentally appropriate behaviour that:

  • is consensual and reciprocal;
  • does not cause emotional distress;
  • is non-coercive;
  • is socially acceptable;
  • is spontaneous; and
  • is not compulsive

Responding to harmful sexual behaviour

The way you respond is important. If you see or hear about harmful sexual behaviour, try to keep calm, and don’t appear angry or disgusted. Be supportive and validating. You will need to report the incident as soon as possible, so write down exactly what you saw and heard. The Care Team will provide support so that children and young people can be kept safe and supported, and will help you with any other actions you need to take.


The Care Team will decide who needs to know about harmful sexual behaviour. Outside of this, you should not share information about harmful sexual behaviours.


Seeing or hearing about harmful sexual behaviour can be distressing, and may impact on you in unpredictable ways.

The child or young person will need your ongoing support to help them cope with what has happened. It is essential to their well-being that you provide them with ongoing reassurance and emotional support.

Seek assistance for your own emotional reactions as soon as possible. You may need an opportunity to debrief with your care team and, if need be, they can assist you with accessing other support services.

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