Child abuse - definitions and signs

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is when a child is deprived of love, warmth and affection or is persistently treated negatively, inconsistently, inappropriately or is rejected. This may include the child being constantly told that they are worthless, unloved or inadequate or the parent or carer having unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of the child's abilities or making the child being made to feel frightened or in danger.

Recognising emotional abuse

Signs of emotional abuse include:
•very low self esteem, often with an inability to accept praise or trust in adults
•excessive clinging and attention seeking behaviour
•over anxious - being excessively 'watchful', constantly checking or being over anxious to please
•withdrawn and socially isolated

Physical abuse

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning or suffocation.

Recognising physical abuse

Bruising is a concern when bruises:

  • can be seen on parts of the body not normally harmed through play
  • appear in or around the mouth (especially in young babies)
  • appear as small 'grasp' or finger marks to a child's arms or legs
  • look like they have been caused by a stick or belt
  • appear to be of different ages (colour) in the same area
  • appear the same on both sides of the body, legs, head or arms
  • appear as bite marks especially when the marks appear to be those of an adult or older child (more than 3cm across)
  • are seen in a baby which is not mobile

Most fractures are treated by a hospital. It is concerning when a child is not taken for treatment if they are suffering pain, swelling or discolouration over a bone or joint. Although it may not always be possible to know whether a child has a fractured bone it is difficult for a parent or carer to be unaware that the child has been hurt. It is rare for children under the age of one to sustain a fracture accidentally.

It can be difficult to distinguish between a burn or scald that has been caused accidentally or non-accidentally. As with fractures all burns and scalds should receive medical treatment.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.

Sexual activities may involve physical contact such as sexual intercourse, buggery or non-penetrative acts.

Sexual activities may also include non-contact activities like involving children in looking at pornography, creating pornography, watching sexual activities or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.

Recognising sexual abuse

Signs of sexual abused include:

  • sexually explicit talk or play, especially in prepubescent children
  • sexual behaviour, such as pretending to have sex during play
  • sexually provocative relationships with adults
  • itching, redness, soreness or unexplained bleeding from a child's vagina or anus
  • bruising, cuts or marks to the genital area
  • repeated genital infections



Neglect is when there is a constant failure to meet the child's basic physical or psychological needs in a way that is likely to cause serious damage to the child's health or development. Neglect can include failing to provide a child with adequate food, shelter or clothing or failing to protect a child from harm or danger or failure to ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment.

Recognising neglect

Signs of neglect include:

  • the child frequently appearing hungry
  • the child consistently appearing unkempt or inappropriately dressed for the weather or smelling
  • failure to seek medical attention
  • failure to prevent accidental injury



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