Child abuse by children: why don’t we talk about it?

As a society we don’t like to discuss it, but child-on-child sexual harm is more commonplace than we would like to admit. Whether it is young adolescent or prepubescent abuse; sibling abuse; or sexting and revenge porn among underage teenagers, it remains a taboo subject, and one which the care, education and criminal justice systems can be reluctant to tackle head on.

The scale of the issue

While the majority of sexual abuse is committed by adults, a study in 2003 reported that 20% of convictions for sexual offences in the UK relate to children who are themselves under the age of 18.

There are also high profile cases which have been extensively covered in the media and are often placed within a narrative on ‘poor parenting’, deviance and deprivation. These include the case of a 10- and an 11-year old boy from Doncaster, who were sentenced in 2009 for the beating, torture and sexual abuse of two other boys; and the murder in Liverpool of James Bulger in 1993 by two ten year-olds.

Acknowledging behaviour as harmful

Research by the National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCats) published in 2010 found that authorities, teachers, social workers and doctors often miss opportunities, or are unsure whether to intervene when they become aware of sexual behaviour.

In many instances the research found that adults were reluctant to acknowledge behaviour as “sexually harmful”, and instead label it as “playful” or “exploratory”. Recognising the difference between these and acting upon it appropriately is vital if children are to be prevented from displaying further harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in the future.

One doctor commented in a BBC interview that it was not uncommon for a serious teenage sex offender to be referred to a doctor with a complete and detailed history of instances of harmful sexual behaviour, but with no action having been taken in the early years. Research from the NSPCC has also been critical of the provision of support services, both for victims but also for child perpetrators of child sexual abuse, with one academic describing the availability of support services as being a “postcode lottery”. They stress the need for a national strategy to deal with young sex offenders.

In early 2016, the Report of the parliamentary inquiry into support and sanctions for children who display harmful sexual behaviour was published by Barnardo’s. The inquiry found a lack of joined-up working, with different agencies too often dealing with harmful sexual behaviour in isolation from others.

To address this, the NSPCC have produced a framework for assessing harmful sexual behaviour which is designed to provide direction for frontline workers, encourage inter-agency working and help services provide support to families of children who display harmful sexual behaviour.

New challenges in the digital age

Recently professionals are also having to deal with new challenges in relation to the impact of the “digital age”, with online grooming, sexting and revenge porn, and the accessing of online pornography becoming increasingly common among young adolescents and pre-pubescent children.

A survey by one teachers’ union found that children as young as seven were found to be “sexting” at school, while a quarter of teachers who responded to the NASUWT survey said they were aware of 11-year-olds sexting.

In 2012, a qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’ was produced by the NSPCC. It confirmed that even young children are affected, with access to technology and smartphones, making it much easier for them to view, share or produce their own sexual content. It found that in many instances, peers, not older children or adults were the biggest “threat”, particularly to girls.

And a recent campaign by the NSPCC highlighted that one in seven young people have taken a naked or semi-naked picture of themselves, and over half went on to share this picture with someone else.

More action needed

It has been widely acknowledged that the government needs to act to create a specific set of guidelines around child sexual behaviour, and in particular child-on-child abuse. The rise of mobile technology has presented authorities with a new problem and makes it easier than ever for young people to become exposed to, or become victim to, harmful and sexual abuse.

Better guidance and training for different professions is needed on how to recognise and deal with harmful sexual behaviour in children. Similarly, the support networks for victims and perpetrators must be strengthened in order to allow children to feel able to speak up and report instances of abuse, and also to break potential cycles of abuse and prevent children from continuing to project harmful sexual behaviours into adulthood.


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Child neglect, wellbeing and resilience – adopting an art’s based approach (Seminar highlights)

upset boy against a wall

By Rebecca Jackson

‘Neglect is a complex issue but art can help, so let it’. That was one of the key messages to come out of a seminar session held at Strathclyde University last week.

The seminar is one of a series of four, looking at how arts-based techniques can be used in research and practice when interacting with neglected children. The session also considered how the arts can be used as a tool to promote resilience among vulnerable and neglected children by building self esteem, a sense of self worth, providing an outlet for emotion and supporting self efficacy.

The interactive seminar drew on a range of topics and sources. Academics from the Universities of Stirling and Dundee led the discussions and delegates included practitioners from psychology, social work, education and social research.

Lack of value placed on the arts

Some general themes to emerge from discussions included:

  • The lack of value placed on the arts as a form of assessment and interaction with children in a professional setting.
  • The over-emphasis on outcomes and funding which means that more ‘fun’ resources and methods are overlooked for more cost or time efficient ones, rather than the ones which work best for each individual child.
  • Children quite easily and quite quickly, between the ages of 10-14 go from being ‘neglected, vulnerable children’ in the eyes of society to ‘problem or troublesome children’.
  • The need to clarify what is meant by successful outcomes and the sense that outcomes have to be quantifiable, with one participant commenting:

    “I am required to produce reports and look for evidence in facts and figures, when in reality, getting a child who has suffered neglect to feel self-worth, or to say they have had fun could and should be a major indicator of the success of a scheme. That is difficult to evidence to other people who don’t know that child.”

Discussions from the day were captured by a graphic designer (Rebecca Jackson, 2015)

Discussions from the day were captured by a graphic designer (Rebecca Jackson, 2015)

Benefits of arts-based interventions

Some of the more art-specific observations from those who use it in their practice highlighted:

  • That removing children from feeling as though they are the centre of attention can be helpful in engaging them – baking, building things from Lego and drawing or colouring can help with this:

    “One-to-one interviews can be very intimidating for children, often they can cause them to close up more as they feel there is pressure and judgement from adults. Blending art activities with standard practice creates a better environment for a child and addresses some of that power imbalance which they are often acutely aware of.”

  • Distancing the child from their story, through analogies, creative writing or storytelling can also help them to open up:

    “I will quite often say, if you had a friend who…. or if there was a character in a story who…. how do you think they would feel? what would you tell them to do? who could they talk to about it? Just giving that little bit of hypothetical distance can really help a child to open up. The story creates an extra level of safety for them”

  • Resources are a big barrier:

    “I work in an office – that’s where I hold my meetings – where can I find a space to bake a cake with a child?”

  • Making full use of the community and its resources – and having the guts to ask for something if you want it:

    “You will be surprised and amazed by people’s generosity if you just ask”

  • Relationships will always be key, and arts-based practice can help encourage and shorten the time it takes for practitioners to build these relationships.

    “Quite often it is one key person, who engages with that child, who the child trusts and feels safe and comfortable around, that can make the biggest difference to that child’s progress”

Future questions

This seminar session was designed as a way to introduce arts based practices in cases of child neglect and vulnerable children and to identify some of the key strategic barriers to its use in practice in Scotland (and the UK more widely). In many ways it raised more questions than it answered.

The subsequent sessions, to be held in early 2016 at the University of Strathclyde and the University of Stirling, will use these discussions to address how academics, practitioners and policy-makers can create a strong collective voice to encourage training in, and promotion of, arts-based practice in Scotland.


Scottish Universities Insight Institute seminar series:Child neglect, wellbeing and resilience: adopting an arts-based approach

Seminar 1: Research methodologies and arts based approaches to resilience and neglect (26th October 2015)

Who was speaking?

  • Professor Brigid Daniel, School of Applied Social Studies, University of Stirling
  • Cheryl Burgess, Research Fellow, University of Stirling
  • Jane Scott, Business Development, WithScotland
  • Dr Susan Elsley, Independent Researcher and associate of CRFR at University of Edinburgh
  • Professor Divya Jindal-Snape, Education, Inclusion and Life Transitions, University of Dundee

Low-level child neglect is a high-stakes issue

Upset boy against a wall

Guest blog by Emily Buchanan, Research Manager, NFER

Earlier this year, an Action for Children report highlighted that neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK today.

Up to one in 10 children across the UK suffers from neglect; it is the most frequent reason for a child protection referral, and it features in 60 per cent of serious case reviews into the death or serious injury of a child. So, how is our research seeking to support those tirelessly campaigning to end child neglect? Continue reading