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Placing the child at the centre of our approach: how we work to support children under 12

22 August 2023

As some children grow and develop, they display sexual behaviour that might be problematic for themselves or their peers. But with early intervention to prioritise their needs, and while recognising any harm they may have done, we can guide these children towards healthy behaviour.

Each child’s behaviour is unique and shaped by their different backgrounds and life experiences. There is no ‘standard’ child we work with.

And because all children are different, we are committed to providing clinical support that is agile, adaptable and tailored to the child’s needs.

Though every child is unique, children go through distinct stages of development. It is vital to understand and account for this to allow children to progress and encourage them to be comfortable expressing themselves in a healthy way.

Beth and Collette from our Young People’s team share their experiences working with children under 12, how we go about putting the child’s needs at the centre of our work and why working with under-12s is crucial to our mission to see a world free from child sexual abuse.

How do under 12s come through to us?

“Generally, the under 12s we work with are referred to us by a professional working with a child,” says Collette, who has 25 years’ experience working as a social worker and, has been with the foundation for the past 2 years. “This could be anyone from a social worker, education professionals or those in youth justice”, she added.

Beth who has worked with children who have displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) for more than 10 years, and has been working with the foundation since May 2022, explained that “those working with the young person send an enquiry to our referrals team and if it meets our criteria, our team will provide advice regarding what support we think would be most appropriate. The referrer will then be invited to complete a referral form”.

Where a child has displayed problematic or harmful sexual behaviour, we may recommend an assessment is completed, using the AIM Under-12s assessment model. Our offer is tailored to suit the child’s needs.

“Once we start working with the child”, explains Beth, “our goal is to prevent problematic behaviour from persisting and escalating. Intervening early and offering support to this younger age range increases the likelihood of preventing them from displaying harmful sexual behaviour when they are older.”

“We love working with younger children and understand that their brains are still developing,” adds Collette. “This presents a challenge that we gladly embrace, as it requires us to think in the way they think, finding joy and fun in the process.”

Just like adults, the story of every child we work with is unique to them and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And the reasons behind their behaviour may differ. So as a clinical team, we ensure we are agile, adaptable and tailor our approach to the needs of the child.

“Quite often, children’s behaviour that is considered by professionals to be problematic and sexually-motivated actually arises from unmet emotional and sensory needs,” explained Beth. “We recognise the importance of their wider needs, by providing tailored support.”

What does a session with a child under 12 look like?

“Our children’s sessions are dynamic and interactive, catering to each child's unique needs,” says Collette.

Sessions may include creative activities, like using sand trays, toys, art, worksheets and play to encourage the child to express their feelings and emotions. Our practitioners are child-led, responding to the individual’s interests to create a safe environment where they feel comfortable to engage. The number of sessions we offer will depend on the child’s circumstances and needs.

“There is never a set way to conduct a session, as it varies depending on the child's personality and needs,” explained Beth. “Our approach involves getting to know as much as we can about the child, which sometimes involves unpacking a multitude of emotions that they might not have the words or language skills to express.”

These sessions are designed to make the child feel at ease and able to open up and this provides the space for us to learn about them and their needs.

This enables practitioners to provide the right support, to positively influence children’s lives as they grow older, breaking patterns that could lead to problematic behaviour in adulthood.

“I often point to the example of a 7-year-old child who gave me a big hug at the end of our session,” reflected Beth. “His foster carers explained that he didn't show affection and was less demonstrative, so this was a big deal.”

No one-size-fits-all solution

There is evidence suggesting that Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) is a growing problem among children, partly influenced by online exposure to adult content and extreme media consumption. Research has suggested that exposure to adult nudity, and sexual material, often in the home, are also strongly associated.

Consultation and proper training are essential for professionals working with under-12s to understand triggers and respond appropriately in the moment. Our team offer bespoke consultations to professional networks, including social workers, foster carers and education. We also provide training to support professionals’ understanding of problematic and harmful sexual behaviour.

When interacting with under-12s whose behaviour appears to be problematic, practitioners can help reinforce positive behaviour.

We advise following our NEST process:

Name and describe the behaviour that needs addressing

Explain the impact of the behaviour

Set clear and appropriate boundaries

Test strategies that address the child’s specific needs

“We find it useful to have sessions with the child’s network, including parents, support workers, carers, and schools. Creating a shared understanding of the child’s behaviour and associated needs helps to create a supportive environment to promote their safe and healthy development,” said Collette.

“It is crucial not to target and shame the child but to support the network to recognise that children at this age lack full cognitive, behavioural, and empathy skills and require support to meet their needs in healthy and safe ways,” says Beth.

Putting the child’s needs at the centre of our approach

Working with children under 12 requires a multi-faceted approach, to ensure that the children are comfortable enough to open up.

By providing a safe and comfortable space for children to express themselves, and by responding to their emotional and sensory needs, we can take positive steps towards addressing any problematic behaviour. This will help them develop healthy coping strategies and steer clear of risky or harmful behaviour as they grow into adults.

‘’We place the child’s needs at the centre of our approach,” concluded Beth.

If you would like to talk to someone about our under-12s work, please contact our referrals team at, call us on 01527 591 922 or visit our webpage to learn more about our assessment, intervention and consultations.

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