Contributed by Dr. Caryn Onions, Head of Research and Development and a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist working at The Mulberry Bush, a UK-based member organisation of Family for Every Child.

Although we would like to think of childhood as a time of innocence, there are children who do not have that freedom. 

As shocking as it may be to most of us, emotionally troubled or traumatised children can start to display harmful sexual behaviour before they even hit puberty. In order to give these children the best shot at a happy, healthy life, it’s essential that we give them the support they need to help them through their emotional upset and turmoil.

In this interview, Dr. Caryn Onions – Head of Research and Development and a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist working at The Mulberry Bush – gives us a valuable insight into harmful sexual behaviours in children, and the support they might need.

The Mulberry Bush is a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to provide services to meet the needs of emotionally troubled and traumatised children, young people, their families and communities by leading the way in therapeutic care. They are a member of Family for Every Child, and are based in the UK.


What are some examples of Harmful Sexual Behaviours (HSBs) that emotionally troubled or traumatised children might display?

Firstly, I think it’s really important to say that each and every child is different. There is no  set pattern of how children deal with trauma, nor are there definite behaviours they might display. But some things we have come across that relate to Harmful Sexual Behaviours include: 

  • Being controlling towards other people
  • Exposing their genitals
  • Masturbating in front of others
  • Kissing another child despite the other one not wanting it to happen
  • Wanting to put things in another child’s mouth, genitals or bottom
  • Frequently talking about sex
  • Accusing children of having sex with each other or with an adult
  • Playing out sex with toys
  • Making ‘sex noises’
  • Making sexualised movements
  • Initiating sex play or having sex

Sometimes these things are accompanied by the children being intimidating and threatening. Other times, children can seem not to know what they are doing, or appear not to understand that their behaviour makes others feel uncomfortable. Again, each and every child is unique and the situation needs to be taken with a deep understanding of their context and background.


What might be some things that drive these harmful sexual behaviours to develop in the first place?

Well, as I say, each child is unique and we can’t say with certainty that any one experience has necessarily led to the way they are today. That said, sometimes we see similar experiences that lead to harmful sexual behaviours. For example, children might develop harmful behaviour after having been exposed to sexualised activities themselves. This might mean they have experienced sexual abuse or exploitation; but it could also mean they have witnessed other people having sex or been exposed to pornography, for example.

But it is important not to jump to conclusions, so we should note that this is not always the case. Harmful sexual behaviours can also occur because of neglect, especially in early childhood. Having a lack of human contact as a baby or young child can manifest itself in this way. As a result, the child may want to be close to someone and want human contact; but lack the social relationships to get comfort appropriately. 

At The Mulberry Bush, our focus is on supporting children with therapeutic care. Whilst the background to why they are acting in certain ways might be relevant, it’s not necessarily important in order to be able to help them. The important thing is to take notice of what’s happening now and provide the support they need to be safer and happier in the future.


What kind of negative effects do these behaviours cause?


The impact of behaving in sexually harmful ways often makes it difficult for others to see these children as anything other than perpetrators, which means that their own trauma and distress get overlooked. For example it can be very shaming for these children if they realise what they have done has hurt another child.

They may be prevented from taking part in certain activities or attending a certain school; or other children might simply decide that they don’t want to play with them, leaving them feeling isolated and lonely. These situations can exacerbate their existing emotional upset, confusion, sadness and anger, amongst other feelings. If they are in residential care, they may need to be kept under a level of surveillance – such as having a buzzer on their bedroom door to protect others. 


We have also seen a range of responses from children who are exposed to this kind of sexually harmful behaviour. The children on the receiving end may also be emotionally upset by the experience, feeling like a victim after being forced to do something against their will. It can also reinforce negative views they might already have about themselves, and increase their sense of shame and low self esteem.


Our current campaign, United For Boys, has a strong focus on embedding best practice with professionals so they know how to support children affected by sexual violence in all its forms. How do you support children who are displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviours at The Mulberry Bush?

At the Mulberry Bush our aim is to help children with their troubled feelings. We believe that by helping them feel safe and developing trusting relationships with the staff they will start to be able to talk about and share how they are feeling, which is the start for them to stop hurting other people. If they are hurting other children in sexual ways, it will probably not be in isolation and might have difficulties with staff as well. Once we have developed a good relationship with a child we may spend some time focusing on keeping safe.

‘Staying safe’ sessions can include topics like:

  • what is a good friend and how to make a good friend
  • what is safe touch, what is unsafe touch, and how to tell the difference
  • how to keep your body safe
  • how to keep your feelings safe and who to talk to when you feel unsafe
  • what to do and say if you feel unsafe
  • helping children express their feelings and emotions using the right words
  • what is a girlfriend or boyfriend
  • teaching them about the body and body parts
  • talking about how babies are made


Whatever the topic, I cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring that everything is done at the child’s pace. If they cannot cope with something and start feeling unsafe then we would use that to try to understand what it was that triggered these feelings.


This work can feel dangerous, shaming, and exposing; so it’s really important to support staff in planning and delivering it. It takes time and it should not be undertaken lightly. 

Things often come up when doing these activities that are distressing for staff as well as children. Only if they are supported to feel safe can they really explore and talk about these difficult themes. But with the right support, we can make a real difference in helping children to understand how to behave in ways that are healthy and appropriate – ultimately setting them up for a better future.

This article is part of our series exploring sexual violence affecting children, which we are running as part of our United For Boys campaign. Mulberry Bush is  a signatory organisation of our United For Boys Charter; in which we commit to making real change happen for children and families affected by sexual violence, with a particular focus on the under-supported and under-reported needs of boys.