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It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between healthy sexual playing, and when the sexual behaviour is problematic and harmful for both the child inflicting it, and the child exposed to it. Knowledge about normal development, and signs of behaviour changing negatively is therefore important. Sexual behaviour can also have different motivations and meanings for children in different developmental stages.

“The Traffic Light” is a nice tool for adults to use when identifying and assessing sexual behaviour causing concern.


Marita Sandvik is a social worker with a master’s degree in mental health care. She is also a cognitive therapist with experience working with violence and sexual crimes at St.Olav’s Hospital, Brøset department (Central professional unit for committal to care, Center for safety-, prison- and judicial psychiatry) and Trondheim Prison.

At the moment she works at RVTS Mid with raising competence around problematic and harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people. Sandvik is especially a proponent of prevention of assault by professional development and establishing access to treatment and following-up for adults and children in danger of committing sexual violations. She is in addition a coordinator for the Resource team for problematic and harmful sexual behaviour (REBESSA).

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3.1 The traffic light can help us differentiate part 1RVTS Mid
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Sometimes a child’s sexual exploration and playing can become too boisterous, intense and violating, to the point where it is problematic for both themselves and those around them. For this reason we need to not only focus on healthy, natural sexual development, but also be able to discern when a child’s sexuality becomes problematic or directly harmful. Being a good caregiver means reacting when the child is overstepping boundaries, including sexual ones. Adults are supposed to provide protection and prevent injury by intervening, as well as help and supervise those who need it.


It can be hard to discern whether children’s sexual behaviour is suited to their age group, or if it’s problematic and potentially harmful. Simon Hackett uses a continuum to define these terms, illustrating with arrows pointing in both directions that sexuality can slide between healthy, problematic and harmful. In other words, when assessing the behaviour we need to take into account the context surrounding it. Healthy sexual playing is characterized as being reciprocated, fun for both parties, consensual, and pleasurable. There should be no power imbalance between the participants, meaning no significant difference in age, physicality, status or cognitive function.


Some examples of problematic sexual behaviour are: acts not befitting of the situation or relation, acts which are not age appropriate, and impulsive acts. These sexual acts can be influenced by peer pressure, or the child’s way of regulating difficult thoughts and feelings. A child’s behaviour should not frighten others, or scare them into keeping quiet about what happened.


We move to the “harmful” category when children are scared, frightened, or threatened into participation and keeping quiet. Harmful sexual behaviour is harmful both toward the child exposed to and the child inflicting it. It is characterized by power imbalance between the participants, fear and sometimes anger, and is difficult to distract from or stop entirely. Discovering when sexual acts become problematic is of great importance. It will provide adults the opportunity to help the children involved get the help they need, break their behavioural patterns, and return to a healthy sexual development. This is how we can prevent the initial problems from becoming harmful.


A guide has been developed to help identify, assess and respond to sexuality that causes concern – it is called “The Traffic Light”, and uses the colours of a traffic light to represent healthy, problematic and harmful sexual behaviour. The Traffic Light reflects the divisions of the continuum, and give examples of healthy, problematic and harmful behaviours in different age groups. Acts which are normal for a 13-year-old require a different response if performed by a 5-year-old, after all.


Some are at greater risk of developing problematic sexual behaviours, like children and young people who have themselves experienced sexual assault, violence or neglect, children with a skewed development or socialization, or children that are greatly impulsive or aggressive. A few examples of problematic behaviours are:

  • an 8-year-old masturbating together with others

  • a 10-year-old sharing nude photos on the internet

  • a 14-year-old obsessed with sex and pornography to the point where it disrupts normal development

  • a 14-year-old utilizing very aggressive language


A few examples of harmful behaviours are:

  • an 8-year-old masturbating consciously in front of others for attention or to frighten

  • a 10-year-old sending other children sexually threatening messages

  • a 14-year-old obsessed with violent pornography, or performing sexual acts with animals (sexual activity with animals is illegal)

It is imperative to put an immediate end to harmful actions. We will through early discovery and following up on both the victim and perpetrator be able to prevent such actions from happening again.


After learning what problematic and harmful sexual behaviour between children looks like, one might ask: “Is this really a problem here in Norway?” To find the answer we need to look at studies reporting on the frequency of sexual violations between children and young people. International studies report the frequency of sexual violations as 10-50%, and on average about 30% of all sexual violations are committed by children. What about in Norway? To find out, let’s look at several self-report studies and criminal statistics of how many minors have been reported to the Police for sexual violations:

1. “Young violence – 2015” (“Ung vold-undersøkelsen – 2015” (NOVA)) is a self-report study by upper secondary-graduates in Norway, and reported that:

  • 3 out of 10 girls had experienced at least one form of sexual violation

  • 1 out 10 boys had experienced at least one form of sexual violation

When asked about rape, students reported that:

  • 1 out of 10 girls had experienced being raped

  • 1 out of 100 boys had experienced being raped

Half of the assaults against girls were committed by boys in their peer-group or slightly older.


2. In 2019 NKVTS published a self-report study on “Adolescents’ childhood experience with violence and assault” (Ungdoms erfaringer med vold og overgrep i oppveksten”). The sample size was around 9000 (9240) adolescents in the ages 12-16, and they reported that:

  • 1 out of 5 had experienced one or more sexual violations by peers, and girls vastly outnumbered boys in this statistic

  • The frequency of sexual violations committed by peers increase drastically when entering teenage years, and girls were affected disproportionately

  • The perpetrator is most often acquainted with the victim

  • In 2 out of 3 cases the perpetrator is a boy

3. A self-report study from 2007 sampling students in the ages 15-19 reports that: At the question “Have [you] convinced, pressured or forced someone to participate in sexual activities?” 9,5% of boys and 1,5% of girls answered yes. (The victims were mostly girls in the ages 10-14.)


Looking at criminal statistics, the Norwegian NCIS (Kripos) published a report titled “Minors reported for sexual assault in 2016” (“Mindreårige anmeldt for voldtekt I 2016”), which tells us that:

  • The number of minors reported for sexual assault is increasing

  • 225 minors were reported for sexual offences in 2016

  • Of everyone reported to the Police, around 1 in 3 were under the age of 15

  • A significant percentage of young people are reported by several different people

In other words, YES, this is worth our attention as a society, as parents and as school staff. Studies from Januscenteret in Denmark – which treats and follows up children who have violated others – show that 30% of the sexual violations were committed at and around school; in the schoolyard during recess, in the toilet stalls, in wardrobes, on the bus, and on the way to and from school. This makes schools an important arena for prevention!


But who are these children and adolescents who commit sexual violations? They are usually children and young people who deal with difficult things in other areas of life. They can be children who have experienced or witnessed violence and assault, or who aren’t taken care of where they live. They can be children who feel very lonely, and have trouble managing push-back and stress. They can be children who have trouble forming connections and don’t trust others. They can be children who have a bad experience with sexual activities, or children who use aggression to get what they want, or who is just overstepping many different boundaries. They can also be children who struggle with social skills and are bad at interpreting social signals, or who are very impulsive, but don’t comprehend the consequences of their actions.

However, some children and young people who commit sexual violations do not otherwise struggle – instead they may have experimented irresponsibly with sexuality, or imitated pornography they found on the internet. Do remember that these children and young people are still developing, and primarily need help and guidance to avoid injuring others, change their behaviour and achieve positive development. We also have to be very careful not to put stigmatizing labels on children, which are hard to get rid of. There is, luckily, a growing awareness of the many and complex reasons why children and young people exhibit harmful sexual behaviour. For example, the child’s condition and inner workings aren’t the only factors; the surrounding environments are incredibly influential. Factors like if they’re cared for, their network or other influences, like the internet or social media.


Cooperation between several professions and authorities are required when managing harmful sexual behaviour. Never be alone with these cases; discuss with colleagues and management, utilize the Traffic Light, and contact agencies with the relevant expertise. Studies show that around 9 out of 10 children will not, given a proper response, repeat harmful actions. Proper responses can be:

  • Correction/enforcing boundaries

  • Explaining

  • Counselling and training for a healthy sexuality

Some children need more extensive measures and treatment to change their unfortunate behavioural patterns, ensure positive development and the safety of other children.

To help children who need assistance with their violating behaviour you should assess:

  • The underlying cause of the act committed

  • The child’s living situation

  • Other vulnerabilities/issues the child might have

  • And last but not least: resources, strengths and protective factors in both the child and surrounding environments


The goal is to gain an understanding of the child’s behaviour, and then use this understanding to decide what measures and treatment are needed. There might be a need for assessments on psychological and cognitive function as well as risk and the chance of repeat offenses, in which case referral to BUP or Habiliteringstjenesten are good options. BUP, in cooperation with other authorities (like school), also offers customized treatment and following-up with the patient.

As part of my master’s degree a few years ago I interviewed adolescents who had been convicted of sexual assault. Their answers when asked if their harmful actions could have been prevented were valuable to our work, in my opinion:

  • “My harmful sexual actions could have been avoided by being better educated on sexuality, consent, the age of consent and reciprocity.”

  • “It is important to inform of the consequences for both the victim and the offender, in addition to how pornography can affect us.”

  • “I wish I had someone to talk to about this.” “This” meaning sexuality, body and his attraction to younger children.


Young people need someone they can talk to when sexuality becomes difficult or, in the worst cases, harmful. Children and young people often trust one of the school staff, resulting in this person being the first to hear about or themselves observe negative interactions between children. School staff are therefore in a great position to educate and provide guidance on the subject of sexuality, as well as ensure those who need it receive help.

Marita Sandvik, vernepleier og fagrådgiver ved Brøset kompetansesenter.

Spilletid: 14:56

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