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All professionals working with children and young people have a responsibility to be aware of signs and indicators that a child may be experiencing child-on-child abuse, as outlined in the signs and indicators area of this toolkit below.

Professionals should be aware of the many different ways children communicate their lived experience. It is important for professionals across all agencies to consider the opportunities that they have for recognising non-verbal communication cues from children, as well as listening and responding effectively to verbal disclosures.

The list below is not an exhaustive list, as the way(s) in which children will disclose or present with behaviour(s) will differ as a result of their individual needs and experiences. Captured in this list are some of the behaviours and behavioural changes that may be communicating that a child is experiencing harm.

  • Being afraid of particular places and/or situations and/or making excuses to avoid particular people.
  • School absence and/or a decline in educational achievement.
  • Running away or going missing from home, care or education.
  • Disengaging from lessons.
  • Lack of interest in school activities.
  • Unexplained physical injuries and other signs of physical abuse.
  • Experiencing difficulties with mental health and/or emotional wellbeing.
  • Becoming nervous, anxious, distressed, clingy or depressed.
  • Self-harming or having thoughts about suicide.
  • Having problems eating, including developing eating disorders.
  • Lack of sleep (including suffering from nightmares).
  • Tiredness.
  • A change in toileting habits.
  • A change in sensory needs (heightened or lessened).
  • Withdrawn or quieter than usual and becoming isolated from peers/ social networks.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Alcohol/substance misuse.
  • Changes in behaviour and/or appearance.
  • Unexplained acquisition of gifts/money or loss of belongings.
  • Inappropriate behaviour for a child’s age.
  • Harmful sexual behaviours towards others.
  • Hesitation or taking longer than usual to get changed for PE in school. This might also include hesitation regarding removing a coat/ additional layers.

The presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily indicate abuse. Professionals are encouraged to:

  1. Be alert to behaviour that might cause concern.
  2. Use their professional curiosity to consider what the behaviour might signify.
  3. Encourage children to share with them any underlying reasons for their behaviour, by asking open questions at the right time to prompt discussion.

The way in which professionals encourage children to share with them any underlying reasons for their behaviour will vary depending on the developmental age and stage of the child. However, the points below can provide some helpful considerations:

  • Approach the conversation from a neutral position, sharing what you have noticed or observed.
  • Provide regular adult check-ins. These need to consider the person, time and place that is likely to feel most comfortable for the child.
  • Some children may find at 1-5 rating helpful as a way of communicating how they are feeling when an adult is checking in. This can allow an adult to notice where there is a change and support discussion with the child regarding why the number is higher/lower and what the child thinks might help to progress up a number.
  • Encourage conversations about a child’s friendship group. It is important to remember that their perception of who their friends are/ who they would like to be friends with may be different to what has been observed by professionals.

Children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) or certain medical or physical health conditions

Children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) or certain medical or physical health conditions can face additional safeguarding challenges both online and offline. Professionals should be aware that additional barriers can exist when recognising abuse in this group of children. These can include:

  • Assumptions that indicators of possible abuse such as behaviour, mood and injury relate to the child’s condition without further exploration.
  • Children with special educational needs or disabilities or certain medical or physical health conditions may be more likely to experience peer group isolation and/or bullying (including prejudice-based bullying).
  • The potential for children with special educational needs or disabilities or certain medical conditions to be disproportionately impacted by behaviours such as bullying, without outwardly showing any signs.
  • Communication barriers and difficulties in managing or reporting these challenges.

Children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender

The fact that a child or young person may be LGBTQ+ is not in itself an inherent risk factor for harm. However, children who are LGBTQ+ can be targeted by other children. In some cases, a child who is perceived by other children to be LGBTQ+ (whether they are or not) can be just as vulnerable as children who identify as LGBTQ+. Risks can be compounded where children who are LGBTQ+ lack a trusted adult with whom they can be open. It is therefore vital that professionals endeavour to reduce the additional barriers faced and provide a safe space for them to speak out or share their concerns with members of staff. LGBTQ+ inclusion is part of the statutory Relationships Education, Relationship and Sex Education and Health Education curriculum.

It is important to understand that children may not find it easy to tell staff about their abuse verbally. As outlined in the signs and indicators area of this toolkit, children may show signs or act in ways that they hope adults will notice and respond to. In some cases, the child who has been harmed may not make a direct disclosure. For example, a friend may make a disclosure, or a professional may overhear a conversation that suggests a child has been harmed or a child’s own behaviour might indicate that something is wrong.

If a professional has any concerns about a child’s welfare, they should act on them immediately following the safeguarding procedures within their organisation.

 The list below reflects some of the barriers as to why a child might not disclose this abuse.

  • The child who has been harmed by the behaviour of another child may not be aware that they are experiencing abuse and therefore may not disclose what is happening.
  • Children and young people with speech, language and communication needs may face additional barriers when it comes to sharing their worries and concerns.
  • Ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation may mean that a child is less likely to disclose as they fear that they will not be believed or will not be supported effectively.

Traditionally, there has previously been an emphasis on intra-familial harm within the home. However, we know that what happens outside of the home and family unit is so important when assessing and analysing safeguarding risks for children. Dr Carlene Firmin emphasises that professionals must seek to understand life outside of a child’s front door in order to identify the full safeguarding risks that a child may be vulnerable to. This is known as a contextual approach to safeguarding. When considering child-on-child abuse, professionals must be aware that children can be vulnerable to harm from other children in a range of settings outside of their home including educational settings and online spaces. The nature of the spaces where children develop their relationships will have an impact on the nature of the relationships and consequently the risk to the child of experiencing any abuse. It is important that professionals have awareness of factors across a local community so they understand where young people are living, who they come into contact with and the dynamics at play.

Abuse that children may experience outside of their home may remain hidden from adults if professionals are not considering the vulnerabilities for children in these wider settings. Taking a contextual safeguarding approach means understanding how behaviours like child-on-child abuse take place in different contexts, and can be prevented or driven by wider structural, systemic or cultural factors.

How should professionals consider contextual safeguarding within their response to child-on-child abuse?

Share Information: Using a contextual safeguarding approach recognises that agencies involved in the life of a child who has experienced harm and the child who has harmed should share information together at an early stage, for example school, housing, transport, health, youth and community agencies. This allows for effective partnership engagement.

Where early concerns escalate and become safeguarding concerns, there must be good understanding of how to make a robust referral to children’s social care including vital contextual information. Any criminal behaviour should be reported in a timely manner.

Consider the Child Who Has Been Harmed and the Child Who Is Displaying Harmful Behaviour:  The child’s context and any potential risks should always be considered for both the child who has been harmed and the child who has displayed harmful behaviour.

 Listen to and Capture the Child’s Voice: Close listening to the child’s voice when working with other agencies will support professionals in identifying local trends in places of abuse, locations on and near school sites, who and how this is happening. Professionals should ensure that they are working with children in a way that allows them to tell professionals where the risks are.

Relationships with Parents/Carers: Professionals should aim for effective collaboration with parents/carers. Parents/carers may have insight into risks that their child is facing outside the home and may be an important protective factor for their child.

It is understood that it is typical for children to display a range of sexualised behaviours as they grow and develop. Children’s sexual behaviour exists on a wide continuum, ranging from normal and developmentally expected through to inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent. This is known as Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB).

Harmful sexual behaviour includes sexual violence and sexual harassment, which is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can occur both offline and online (or simultaneously between the two), for example through the sharing of nude and semi-nude images and/or videos. This can also be known as ‘sexting’ or ‘youth produced sexual imagery’.

Hackett’s Continuum is a tool that designed by Professor Hackett to demonstrate the range of sexual behaviours presented by children and young people, which may be helpful when seeking to understand a child’s sexual behaviour and deciding how to respond to it.

Hackett’s Continuum, along with the Brook Traffic Light tool are useful tools to inform professional thinking and decision-making. Professionals should reference where these have tools have been used within records (and any inter-agency referral forms) to capture how these have informed professional decision-making.

The NSPCC outlines that professionals should consider each situation individually, as well as any developing patterns, to inform a decision regarding whether a behaviour is problematic or harmful. Professionals should consider:

  • Whether the behaviour is developmentally typical for the age of the child who has displayed the sexual behaviour.
  • Whether the behaviour is unusual for the child, given what is known about their typical behaviour. If there is a significant change in a child’s behaviour, then professionals should be curious as to the reason for the change in behaviour.
  • Whether there is a difference of age or developmental ability between the child who is displaying the harmful behaviour and the child/ren towards whom the behaviour is directed. Where there is a difference then this may indicate that the behaviour is problematic or harmful.
  • Whether there is an imbalance of power, with the child displaying the behaviour being in a more powerful position than the other children involved. This imbalance of power might be the result of a difference in age or developmental ability as captured above. It may also be a result of a difference in size.
  • Whether the behaviour has involved coercion, intimidation or forcing others to take part. If so, then it should be considered as harmful.
  • Whether the behaviour is excessive, degrading or threatening. Behaviour that his obsessive, persistent, compulsive or happening over a long period of time would be deemed excessive. Behaviour involving force, coercion, bribery or threats is harmful.

Further information is included within the HIPS Child Sexual Abuse Toolkit, to support professionals in identifying and responding to harmful sexual behaviour. This includes when sexual behaviour may be harmful towards other children.