Peer on peer abuse

Peer-on-peer/child on child abuse can be motivated by perceived differences e.g. on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other differences. It can result in significant, long lasting and traumatic isolation, intimidation or violence to the victim. Children or young people who harm others may have additional or complex needs e.g. significant disruption in their own lives, exposure to domestic abuse or witnessing or suffering abuse, educational under-achievement, being involved in crime. It should be recognised that peer abuse is harmful to both the perpetrator (who is a child) and the victim.

This form of abuse occurs when there is any kind of physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse or coercive control exercised between children both on and offline . It is essential that all staff understand the importance of challenging inappropriate behaviours between children/young people. Downplaying certain behaviours, for example dismissing sexual harassment as “just banter”, “just having a laugh”, “part of growing up” or “boys being boys”; or not recognising that emotional bullying can sometimes be more damaging than physical harm and should be taken equally seriously, can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours, an unsafe environment for children and in worst case scenarios a culture that normalises abuse leading to children/young people accepting it as normal and not coming forward to report it. Stopping harm and ensuring immediate safety is the first priority of a school/college

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Definition

Children can abuse other children. This is generally referred to as peer on peer/child on child abuse and can take many forms. It can happen both inside and outside of school/college and online. It is most likely to include, but may not be limited to: bullying (including cyberbullying, prejudice-based and discriminatory bullying); abuse in intimate personal relationships between peers; physical abuse; sexual violence, such as rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault; sexual harassment; non-consensual sharing of nudes and semi nudes images and/or videos; causing someone to engage in sexual activity without consent; upskirting; and initiation/hazing type violence and rituals.

Keeping Children Safe in Education, 2021

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Spotting the signs and indicators

  • absence from school or disengagement from school activities
  • physical injuries
  • mental or emotional health issues
  • becoming withdrawn – lack of self esteem
  • lack of sleep
  • alcohol or substance misuse
  • changes in behaviour
  • inappropriate behaviour for age
  • harmful towards others
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Additionally vulnerable groups

  • Those aged 10 and upwards
  • Girls and young women are more likely to be harmed and boys and young men more likely to have harmed
  • Black and minority ethnic children/young people often under identified as having been harmed and over-identified as having harmed others
  • Children/young people with intra-familial abuse in their histories or those living with domestic abuse
  • Children/young people in care and those who have experienced loss of a parent, sibling or friend through bereavement

Children/young people who have harmed others can be younger than their victims.

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It is important to remember that as with all safeguarding issues, peer on peer abuse can impact on children and young people without these characteristics.  The issue facing professionals is that these characteristics will often make the child / young person more visible, whilst those without any of the characteristics above may be less likely to come into contact with professionals.

For example, when a young person goes missing from care (even for a small amount of time) the professional network will know about it, whilst if a young person regularly returns home later than their curfew their parents may not necessarily tell anyone.

It is therefore important to look at interlinking factors and not isolated incidents.

Contextual safeguarding and power dynamics

It is important to recognise that children are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts as they form different relationships in their neighbourhoods, schools and online and these can feature violence and abuse which is often hidden to adults. Peer influence and pressure is a major factor in decisions made by young people to join groups. Keeping Children Safe in Education highlights the importance of awareness of factors across a school’s local community so they understand where young people are living, who they come into contact with and the dynamics at play – contextual safeguarding.

Understanding the power dynamic that can exist between children and young people is very important in helping to identify and respond to peer on peer abuse – there will be a power imbalance and this may be due to age or status – social or economic – and the child/young person who has harmed in one situation may be the one being harmed in another so it is essential to try to understand the one harming and what is driving their behaviour before giving sanctions.

A thorough investigation of the concerns should take place to include any wider contexts which may be known. However, the child/young person who has been harmed should always be made to feel safe and actions will need to be taken to separate them from the those harming them and ensure that the abuse is not allowed to continue. The issues of the interplay between power, choice and consent should be explored with children/young people.

What you can do …

Create a healthy, safe environment based on equality and informed choice allowing children and young people to know their rights and responsibilities, what to do if they are unhappy with something and what it means to give true consent. Staff and students should treat each other with respect and understand how their actions affect others. Staff and students should feel able to openly discuss issues that could motivate child on child abuse. Make it clear that your setting has a zero-tolerance whole-setting approach i.e. harmful behaviours will not be passed off as ‘banter’, ‘just growing up’ etc.   Issues that might later provoke conflict should be addressed early. Ensure that your reporting systems are well promoted, easily understood and easily accessible and have the confidence of children and young people. Staff should recognise that even if there are no reported cases of peer-on-peer abuse, such abuse may still be taking place and is simply not being reported

Understand your local community and the context in which children and young people at your school or college are growing up. Read more about contextual safeguarding here.

Ensure children/young people know the risks – talk about peer-on-peer abuse in an age-appropriate way. Create opportunities for children/young people to weigh up risks and recognise that sometimes this means they will take risks we as adults and professionals disagree with. Our role is to be influencing children/young people to be making the healthiest long-term choices and keeping them safe from harm in the short-term.

Ensure staff understand the impact of peer/child on child abuse on children/young people’s mental health as well as the additional needs/vulnerabilities of children/young people with special educational needs or disabilities, who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender; and/or have other perceived differences

Check children/young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers and with your staff. Create the environment where it is OK to talk, even about the most difficult things.

Spot the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above along with your school/college’s safeguarding procedures and be confident to raise peer on peer/child on child abuse as a possibility.

Audit tool

Our short audit tool relating to sexual violence and sexual harassment is available to members in the DSL Tools section to support DSLs to consider whether the school is compliant with the guidance and evidence a whole school culture of proactively addressing these issues.

Contact us for our school training packages on bullying, sexual violence and sexual harassment, peer-on-peer abuse and staff training to empower young people to make the choices in their lives that are right for them, develop respect for choice and a positive and protective school culture, and build staff confidence in working with these tricky issues.

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Resources

  • Responding to the incel ideology

    In this safeguarding insight, we will consider what incel is, how this is a safeguarding issue as well as an RHSE matter, as well as how to address incel culture.  In our discussions within Safeguarding Network, the clear view has been that whilst this does need to be addressed, it also needs to be done so in a manner that does not promote the culture above others or provide to with special prominence.  Towards the end of this insight, we will therefore look at how we feel incel can be addressed within training that is already on safeguarding agendas.

  • Zero tolerance

    Keeping Children Safe in Education now requires schools and colleges to include “a statement which makes clear there should be a zero-tolerance approach to abuse” (para 145) in their child protection policies. This article seeks to clarify how settings might meet this duty and avoid an arbitrary response which may in practice increase the barriers to disclosure and risks to young people. Such a response would risk undermining the work to date on exclusions, minimises the impact of sexual abuse to a catch-phrase and most importantly risks increasing the pressures on young people who may have been harmed.

  • Ofsted blog: What is peer-on-peer abuse?

    Sean Harford, National Director for Education, and Yvette Stanley, National Director for Social Care, discuss peer-on-peer abuse: what it is, what schools should be doing when it happens and how we’ve trained our inspectors to recognise it.

  • Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

    The term ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ (HSB) is used to describe a continuum of sexual behaviours, from inappropriate to problematic to abusive. There is a range of common and healthy behaviours at different developmental stages. When a child or young person behaves in ways considered to be outside this range, their behaviour may be called ‘harmful’ because it is harmful to themselves or others. This report looks at the available research about HSB.

  • Practitioner Briefing #1: What is peer-on-peer abuse?

    Original briefing from 2015 about peer on peer abuse and what the term means.  Based on research undertaken by the University of Bedfordshire.

  • Sibling sexual abuse

    This Safeguarding Insight is drawn from a recent publication by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse. Our aim is to provide you with a broader understanding of a specific topic through a researched and referenced article that contributes towards your professional development and ensures that you can support your staff accordingly.

  • Harmful sexual behaviour prevention toolkit

    Supported by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, this toolkit is designed for parents, carers, family members and professionals, to help everyone play their part in keeping children safe. It has links to useful information, resources, and support as well as practical tips to prevent harmful sexual behaviour and provide safe environments for families.

  • Sexual Violence and Harassment

    All our children/young people have a right to grow up safe from abuse and harassment. Education settings are central to framing a safe ethos and creating safe spaces for children/young people to explore healthy relationships, and there is a duty on settings to ensure they take action to keep children/young people safe. Find out more on our Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment resource page.

  • Preventing and Tackling Bullying

    Bullying can have a devastating effect on individuals. It is often a barrier to their learning and may have serious consequences for their mental health. Bullying which takes place at school does not only affect an individual during childhood but can have a lasting effect on their lives well into adulthood. In addition to physical and sexual abuse, bullying can include: making people do things they don’t want to, stopping people doing things they want to do, damaging and/or taking someone’s belongings, name-calling, sarcasm, teasing, saying or writing nasty things, spreading rumours, blackmail or threats, showing upsetting material e.g. pornography/violence, isolating/social exclusion, and scaring. Find out more on our bullying page.

  • Child Exploitation

    Child exploitation refers to the use of children for someone else’s advantage, gratification or profit often resulting in unjust, cruel and harmful treatment of the child. Children can be exploited in many ways, including being trafficked, sexually exploited, and used to run drugs. Find out more on our Child Exploitation webpage.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising child sexual exploitation
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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