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Advice for parents

The HSB inquiry heard that parents play a pivotal role in spotting the signs of harmful sexual behaviour and protecting children from harm.

It can be difficult to know whether your child’s behaviour is a sign of healthy development or if you should be concerned. It can also be challenging to have open conversations with your children about sexual behaviour. But we know that raising these issues, and giving your child the chance to confide in you, plays an important role in keeping your child safe.

The information below is aimed at giving parents the knowledge and confidence they need.

How do I know what’s normal?  

Children go through different stages of development and will show a growing awareness and curiosity about their bodies and their sexuality. Sometimes this involves exploration with other children of a similar age.

Pre-school children (0-5) years commonly:

  • Use childish ‘sexual’ language to talk about body parts  
  • Ask how babies are made and where they come from
  • Touch or rub their own genitals
  • Show and look at private parts

You should be concerned if they:

  • Discuss sexual acts or use sexually explicit language
  • Have physical sexual contact with other children
  • Show adult-like sexual behaviour or knowledge

School-age children (6-12 years) commonly:

  • Ask questions about menstruation, pregnancy and other sexual behaviour
  • Experiment with other children, often during games, kissing, touching, showing and role playing e.g. mums and dads or doctors and nurses
  • Masturbate in private

You should be concerned if they

  • Masturbate in public
  • Show adult like sexual behaviour or knowledge

Adolescents commonly:

  • Ask questions about relationships and sexual behaviour
  • Use sexual language and talk between themselves about sexual acts
  • Masturbate in private
  • Experiment sexually with adolescents of similar age

NB. About one-third of adolescents have sexual intercourse before the age of 16.

You should be concerned if they:

  • Masturbate in public
  • Have sexual contact with much younger children or adults  

Source: Parents Protect!


Is it different if my child has a learning disability?

Children with learning disabilities may develop at a different rate. So your child may be doing different things at different times from other children the same age.

Children with learning disabilities can be more vulnerable to abuse. They may behave in sexual ways without knowing that this may be seen as unusual by other children and adults. It is especially important that parents talk to their children about these issues in a way they understand, and make sure their children can communicate any concerns.  

Why would my child sexually harm another child?

All children can be at risk of harmful sexual behaviour. We know that some children are particularly at risk – including those who have suffered abuse or neglect. However, harmful sexual behaviour is often linked to negative ideas about sex that can come from extreme pornography, exposure to inappropriate adult influences, or other children.

The important thing is to make sure children get help as early as possible so they can change their behaviour, change the way they see themselves and others, and go on to achieve a healthy, full life.

Impact of pornography

It is normal for young people to be curious about sex and pornography. But pornography can impact their understanding of what normal sexual behaviour is and may affect their relationships negatively. As a parent, it is important to discuss pornography with your child to help them understand how to stay safe online and what to do if they’ve seen something that makes them feel uncomfortable.