Peer on peer abuse

Peer-on-peer abuse can take various forms and include serious bullying, relationship abuse, domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, harmful sexual behaviour, and/or genderbased violence.

This form of abuse occurs when there is any kind of physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse or coercive control exercised between children. It includes bullying, cyberbullying, sexual violence, harassment and sexting.

It should be recognised that the behaviour in question is harmful to both the perpetrator (who is a child) and the victim. Behaviour may be intimate or non-intimate.


Children can abuse other children. This is generally referred to as peer on peer abuse and can take many forms. This can include (but is not limited to) bullying (including cyberbullying); sexual violence and sexual harassment; physical abuse such as hitting, kicking, shaking, biting, hair pulling, or otherwise causing physical harm; sexting and initiating/hazing type violence and rituals.

Keeping Children Safe in Education, 2019

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Spotting the signs and symptoms

  • 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  • becoming withdrawn – lack of self esteem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
  • abusive towards others
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Vulnerable groups

  • Those aged 10 and upwards (although victims as young as 8 identified)
  • Girls and young women are more likely to be victims and boys and young men more likely to be abusers
  • Black and minority ethnic children often under identified as victims and over-identified as perpetrators
  • Young people with intra-familial abuse in their histories or those living with domestic abuse are more likely to be vulnerable
  • Young people in care and those who have experienced loss of a parent, sibling or friend through bereavement
  • Young people who have been abused or have abused their peers.

Abusers 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 perpetrator in one situation may be the powerless victim in another so it is essential to try to understand the perpetrator and what is driving their behaviour before taking sanctions.

A thorough investigation of the concerns should take place to include any wider contexts which may be known. However, the victim should always be made to feel safe and actions will need to be taken to separate victim and perpetrator and ensure that the abuse is not allowed to continue. The issues of the interplay between power, choice and consent should be explored with young people.

What you can do …

Create an environment based on equality and informed choice allowing children and young people to know their rights, what to do if they are unhappy with something and what it means to give true consent.

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 young people know the risks – talk about peer on peer abuse in an age appropriate way. Create opportunities for 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 young people to be making the healthiest long-term choices and keeping them safe from harm in the short-term.

Check 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 safeguarding procedures and be confident to raise peer on peer as a possibility.

Audit tool

Our short audit tool 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 issues relating to sexual violence and sexual harassment.

Contact us for our school training packages on 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.



  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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Join safeguarding network for more information on how to identify and intervene in schools.

  • 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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