Child on child abuse

Everyone should be aware that children can abuse other children. Child-on-child abuse can happen both inside and outside of a setting, face-to-face and online. Organisations working with children play an important role in preventing and responding to child-on-child abuse. As with any form of abuse, child-on-child abuse can result in significant, long-lasting trauma, isolation, physical harm, poor mental health, a child missing education, and poor outcomes.

Definition

Inappropriate behaviours between children that are abusive in nature including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, exploitation, sexual harassment, all forms of bullying, coercive control, hazing/initiation rituals between children and young people, both on and offline (including that which is within intimate personal relationships).

Adapted from: Keeping Children Safe in Education

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We should remember that child-on-child abuse is harmful to both the perpetrator and the victim. Children or young people who harm others may have additional or complex needs (e.g. significant disruption in their lives, exposure to domestic abuse, witnessing or suffering abuse, educational under-achievement, or being involved in crime).

Statistics

  • At school, 69% of girls said boys have made comments about girls and women that they would describe as ‘toxic’. (Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 2023)
  • A quarter of primary-aged children (parent-report), and around a fifth of secondary-aged (self-report) children reported having been bullied in the previous 12 months. (State of the Nation, 2022)
  • 25% of all child sexual abuse cases involve a perpetrator under the age of 18(Ofsted, Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges)
  • In 2021, 8,000 allegations were made regarding rape and sexual violence in schools. (BBC)
  • Around one-in-five children aged 10 to 15 years in England and Wales (19%) experienced at least one type of online bullying behaviour in the year ending March 2020, equivalent to 764,000 children. (Office for National Statistics)

It’s essential that all staff understand the importance of challenging inappropriate behaviours between children and 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, and an unsafe environment for children. Allowing a culture that normalises abuse often discourages children and young people from reporting it.

All staff should understand that even if there are no reports of child-on-child abuse in their setting, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It’s more likely that it is just not being reported.

“…certain students are afraid to come forward to tell you what has happened as there isn’t enough done for them or they fear that you will overlook it.”

Young person, We don’t tell our teachers, 2021

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Spotting the signs

  • Absence from school or lack of interest in school activities.
  • Physical injuries.
  • Mental or emotional ill-health.
  • Becoming withdrawn.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Tiredness.
  • Alcohol or other substance misuse.
  • Changes in behaviour.
  • Inappropriate behaviour for their age.
  • Displaying harmful behaviour towards others.
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Particularly vulnerable groups

  • Those aged 10 and upwards.
  • Girls and young women are more likely to be harmed, while boys and young men are more likely to have harmed.
  • Black and minority ethnic children and young people are often under-identified as having been harmed and over-identified as having harmed others.
  • Those with special educational needs and/or disabilities.
  • Those with intra-familial abuse in their histories or those living with domestic abuse.
  • Those who are in care.
  • Those who are experiencing or have experienced bereavement following the loss of a parent, sibling or friend.
  • Those who are, or are perceived to be, LGBT+.
  • Those who are in boarding schools or other residential institutions.
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It’s important to remember that, as with all safeguarding issues, child-on-child abuse can impact on children and young people without these characteristics. Some of these characteristics may make a child or young person more visible, whilst those without any of the characteristics above may be less likely to be noticed by 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.

Children and young people who have harmed others can be younger and/or physically smaller than their victims. We should never make assumptions based on a child’s age or physical appearance.

We should consider interlinking factors and not just isolated incidents.

Safeguarding in context and power dynamics

We must recognise that children are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts because they form different relationships in their neighbourhoods, education settings and online. These relationships can feature violence and abuse which is often hidden from adults. Many vulnerable children across Britain are reported to be routinely viewing videos of illegal activity – fights, beatings, stabbings, sexual assaults, sex acts involving children, and the sale of weapons and drugs – on mainstream social media and messaging platforms.

“[Young people] live in a hyper-local bubble, which shapes their experiences, attitudes and expectations. To people outside of these bubbles, this activity and its consequences are largely invisible.”

Anti-social Media (2023)

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 staff awareness of the factors across a setting’s local community so they understand where young people are living, who they come into contact with and the dynamics at play.

Understanding the power dynamics that can exist between children and young people is very important in helping to identify and respond to child-on-child abuse. Child-on-child abuse involves a power imbalance and this may be due to factors such as age, ability or status (social or economic).

A child or young person who has harmed in one situation may be the one being harmed in another. It’s essential to try to also understand and support the child harming others, including finding out what is driving their behaviour, before and/or as well as giving sanctions.

A thorough investigation of the concerns should take place to include any wider contexts (including siblings) which may be known. However, the child or young person who has been harmed should always be made to feel safe. Actions should be taken to ensure that the abuse is not allowed to continue.

The issues of the interplay between power, choice and consent should be explored with children and 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 freely give informed 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, e.g. harmful behaviours will not be passed off as “banter”, ”just growing up”, etc.

Issues that might provoke conflict later should be addressed early. Ensure that your reporting systems are promoted widely, easily understood, easily accessible and inspire confidence in children and young people.

Boarding schools, residential special schools, residential colleges and children’s homes have additional factors to consider regarding safeguarding due to the unique nature of (and the risks associated with) children sharing overnight accommodation. They should, amongst other things, be alert to the extra vulnerabilities of children with special educational needs and/or disabilities in such settings, the impact of a significant gender imbalance within the setting, inappropriate pupil or student relationships, and how children’s personal electronic devices are safely managed within the setting.

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

Ensure children and young people know the risks – discuss child-on-child abuse in an age/ability-appropriate way. Create opportunities for children and young people to weigh up the risks and recognise that sometimes this means they will take risks we as adults and professionals disagree with.

Our role is to positively influence children and young people to make the healthiest long-term choices and keep them safe from harm in the short-term.

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

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

Spot the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above, along with your setting’s safeguarding procedures, and have the confidence to raise child-on-child abuse as a possibility.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know children and young people are safe.

Resources

  • Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Audit Tool

    This audit tool developed by Safeguarding Network allows DSLs and safeguarding teams to consider their setting’s preparedness for, and response to, reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

  • Children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

    This research from the CSA Centre confirms that a significant proportion of child sex abuse is carried out by under-18s. The research covers the extent of child-on-child harmful sexual behaviour, effective assessment, intervention and prevention.

  • Sibling sexual abuse guidelines

    The CSA Centre has created a guide on sibling sexual behaviour to support professionals in their response to inappropriate, problematic and abusive behaviour involving siblings. The guide looks at identifying, understanding and responding to sibling sexual behaviour including adopting a whole family response, support for parents and further assessments and intervention.

  • Harmful sexual behaviour – guidance and resources for education professionals

    The CSA Centre has also produced a guide and safety plan template to provide practical support for education professionals when responding to children’s and young people’s needs and safety when incidents of HSB occur.

    Part A looks at key actions and reviewing arrangements for settings and includes the safety plan template. Part B focusses on broader practical advice, such as how to communicate with children and their parents in these circumstances, and an appendix with useful links and resources.

  • Contextual safeguarding resource

    The Youth Advisory Panel of the Safer Young Lives Research Centre (SYLRC) has created a booklet for children and young people on contextual safeguarding and dangers outside the home. This resource is also designed for professionals who work with children and young people to use as a tool to facilitate discussion about safeguarding in an age-appropriate way.

  • A safe space for young people worried about sexual behaviour

    If you know a young person who is worried about harmful sexual behaviour, signpost them to this web page from Shore. Part of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Shore provides anonymous advice and support when young people are worried about their (or someone else’s) sexual thoughts, feelings or actions and to help them learn more about living safely both online and offline.

  • Anti-social media

    This research from Revealing Reality shares the stories and experiences of vulnerable young people viewing illegal activity on mainstream social media platforms. The research is also informed by the experiences and observations of a range of professionals and practitioners, including youth workers, police officers, liaison officers and teachers.

  • Addressing child-on-child abuse

    This resource, published by legal firm, Farrer & Co, is designed to help educational professionals address child-on-child abuse in its many forms. It includes statistics, resources, educational material, support services, interventions, and government guidance.

  • 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.

  • Responding to the incel ideology

    In this safeguarding insight, we consider what incel is, how this is a safeguarding issue as well as an RHSE matter, and how to tackle incel culture. We also cover how incel can be addressed within training that is already on safeguarding agendas.

  • Zero tolerance

    Keeping Children Safe in Education requires schools and colleges to include “a statement which makes clear there should be a zero-tolerance approach to abuse” 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.

  • Sibling sexual abuse insight

    Our safeguarding insight is drawn from a publication by the CSA Centre. It provides a broader understanding of sibling sexual abuse that contributes towards your professional development and ensures that you can support your staff accordingly.

  • We don’t tell our teachers

    This report from Estyn, the inspectorate of training and education in Wales, provides insight on child-on-child sexual harassment using the experiences of secondary school pupils in Wales. It shares how to encourage and empower pupils to have trust in their teachers through proactive approaches to create a strong culture that promotes reporting.

  • Educate Against Hate – Classroom Resources

    Although this website mainly provides practical advice, support and resources to protect children from radicalisation and teach them about fundamental British values; many of the resources also explore issues such as online hate, religious prejudice, stereotypes and hate crime.

  • Addressing School Avoidance

    This resource from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families looks at some of the reasons behind school avoidance and aims to help educational staff address the issue.

    You can also watch this video which provides practical ways that educational staff can help students by creating a space that allows them to feel both physically and emotionally safe.

  • Anti-racism and mental health in schools

    The Anna Freud Centre has a collection of podcasts, case studies, and policy templates about racism, its impact on child mental health and what education settings can do to address it.

For resources to develop staff knowledge of safeguarding, subscribe today.

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