How to spot child abuse

Would you know how to spot child abuse?

Little girl with ponytail, side view with hand over her ear. Spot the signs of Child Abuse
Spot the signs of Child Abuse

This is the third in a series of Let’s talk about Abuse. Today we’re going to look at Child Abuse but before we start:

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, this article might mention trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering.

First, let’s take a look at the following Child Abuse statistics for year ending March 2019 from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 2019. If you’re not too interested in statistics, just scroll down the page.

  • The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that one in five adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced at least one form of child abuse, whether emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence or abuse, before the age of 16 years (8.5 million people).
  • Many cases of child abuse remain hidden; around one in seven adults who called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood’s (NAPAC’s) helpline in the latest year had not told anyone about their abuse before.
  • In the year ending March 2019, Childline delivered 19,847 counselling sessions to children in the UK where abuse was the primary concern; around 1 in 20 of the sessions resulted in a referral to external agencies. So yes, let’s talk Child Abuse.

What is the UN convention on the rights of the child?

Lit up photo young child holding up broken chains
All children have the right to be treated
with dignity and fairness……

In 1989, governments across the world adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), recognising that all children have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness, to be protected, to develop to their full potential and to

Their rights, according to UNCRC, include that: Governments must do all they can to make sure every child can enjoy their rights; to life, to adequate standard of living and non-discrimination, from child mortality to combating disease and malnutrition, preventing violence and injury, ensuring rehabilitation and support for children with disabilities, or abolishing traditional practices that harm children such as early enforced marriage and female genital mutilation.

So, what is Child Abuse?

Head of baby lying on his back, with black eyes and blooding dripping from his nose
Shocking — One month old baby

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes child abuse as a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there’s an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress.

Who are the abusers

Sometimes people who abuse children were themselves abused as children. A cycle of abuse might be difficult to break if it’s not dealt with effectively. It can be passed down through generations within a family.

Child abusers come from all walks of life and abuse could happen anywhere i.e. in the home, at school, at the local swimming pool or park. Child abusers can be anyone from parents, caregiver, close family members, family friends, teachers and/or coaches. In fact, an abuser could be anyone who has access to a child — whether through action or failing to act.

People who’ve experienced abandonment, witnessed family violence or experienced various forms of abuse during childhood are at greater risk of poor mental health, behavioural and interpersonal skills in later life.

Types of abuse

Child abuse is behaviour toward a child that is outside the ‘normal societal behaviours’. Four types of abuse are generally recognized:

Girl with long blond hair wearing blue denim jacket and jeans. Sitting, leaning against a wall and covering her face
Emotional abuse harms a child’s
mental and social development
  • Emotional abuse includes any act that results in the child suffering significant emotional deprivation or trauma. Emotional abuse harms a child’s mental and social development, and over time, can cause severe emotional harm.

Shouting at a child or at other parent in front of them is child abuse. Being threatening towards a child, saying things like “If you don’t behave, I’ll cut your rabbit in half”, or “If your gonna sulk I’ll smash up that bloody laptop” is child abuse.

Putting a child down or criticising them, particularly in front of people, shaming or making the child feel guilty is abuse. Letting children hear adult themed conversations, talking about divorce or separation or putting the other partner down in front of a child is also abuse.

Psychological abuse is often the hardest form of abuse to identify. However, if a child is abused in another way i,e, physically or sexually, psychological abuse might not be far behind.

‘My greatest wish is that my kids always know how much I love them, and that they walk through the rest of their life knowing I’ll always be there for them anyway I can.’


Signs a child might be emotionally abused might include:

  1. Withdrawal from friends and activities they used to enjoy
  2. Sudden loss of self-confidence, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD or unusual fears
  3. Looking sad and lonely, different from how they’ve been in the past
  4. Changes in behavior — such as anger, aggression, hostility or hyperactivity and being spiteful, bullying others such as younger siblings, school friends and even parents
  5. Rebellious or defiant behavior, deliberately breaking all the normal family or school rules
  6. An apparent lack of supervision, possibly always out on the streets
  7. Running away
  8. Frequent absences from school or sudden changes in school performance
  9. Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn’t want to go home
  10. Self-harm; pulling out their hair, cutting or scratching self, or suicide attempts
Young boy wearing blue jeans and white t-shirt. Sitting on the floor with his hand up defending himself as females hand that look like they're about to hit or slap
Young boy looks like mum’s angry,
– Image Shutterstock/Speedkingz
  • Physical abuse is when a parent, family friend, teacher or caregiver purposely causes physical injury to a child. There’s lots of signs of physical abuse, some of which are listed here:
  1. Bruises, black eyes, blisters, hair pulling, cuts and cigarette burns, scars or scratches
  2. Severe visible injuries like burns or welts, possibly hit with a belt or stick
  3. Broken arms, legs or hands, dislocated joints
  4. Internal injuries like stomach; perhaps being kicked and punched or brain damage
  5. Lifelong injury as in brain injury, death

Be aware if a child doesn’t want to leave, say a friend’s birthday party, to go home, or they’re afraid of adults, including other parents

ID 9388190 © Monkey Business Images |
  • Neglect includes any serious omission or act that constitutes a failure to provide the essential conditions for the healthy emotional and physical development of a child (within the bounds of cultural tradition). Some examples are:
  1. Leaving a child alone without appropriate supervision i.e. leaving a baby with a 6/7 year old sibling while parent goes off to a bar or party
  2. Not receiving comfort, affection, and appropriate stimulation from caregivers; no smiles, hugs or appropriate physical bonding. No emotional support such as ignoring their cries, their feelings or other emotional needs
  3. Not getting medical help when required or quite the opposite, Munchausen syndrome by proxy (a mental health problem where a caregiver makes up or causes an illness or injury in a child
  4. Infection because of lack of medication or poor hygiene which might result in scabies, head lice, diarrhea
  5. Not enrolling a child at school or not making sure a child attends school

Signs of neglect in children would include things like:

Whiteboard with someone writing in large blue letters - child neglect
  • Nasty body odour, matted hair, dirty skin and/or nails
  • A child being ill-kempt, extremely dirty clothing or wearing clothing that’s way too small or too big
  • Untreated sores, scabs or severe nappy rash
  • If a baby isn’t meeting appropriate physical and developmental milestones without an underlying medical reasons
  • Being hungry and stealing food or what might appear as gluttony – eating really quickly and furtively
  • A child is always tired, late for school or not attending school
  • Feeling bad about themselves, not making friends
  • Being involved in serious accidents like falling down stairs, constantly bruised or broken bones

I have consciously left out Childhood Sexual Abuse in this article, as that’s a whole other post.

Knowing how to help a child who is being abused and how to respond if you think a child is suffering is very complex. So too is understanding why most children don’t disclose, but I’ll try to cover that in my next post childhood sexual abuse. Listed here are support services you might want to contact for advice and support if you know of a child being abused:

  • NAPAC because the damage caused by child abuse doesn’t always end in childhood. NAPAC offer support to adult survivors and training for those who support them. Call 0808 801 0331
  • NSPCC 0808 800 5000 to report concerns about a child
  • Childline call 0800 1111 for advice and support

Though it’s crucial to raise awareness of child abuse, researching and writing this article brought up many old thoughts and feelings. It’s been depressing at times, anxiety provoking, soul-destroying and shocking. I’m guessing that many of you will have had similar anxieties reading it. If so, I’m sorry for what you may have gone through and, please take a few moments to self-soothe and to take care of yourself.

Large red question mark with white man character leaning against it

I hope you’ve found this post useful in some way. Do you think I’ve covered most angles, or do you need more? Would you ever report to the authorities if you saw signs of child abuse? I’m really interested to hear your opinions and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.

You might be interested in the two other posts in this series, Let’s talk about Domestic Violence here or Let’s talk about the various forms of abuse here.

One last thought: if you’re having relationship problems, please – tell a friend, speak to your GP or find a therapist, but please don’t take it out on the children.

Let’s talk about abuse

Why let’s talk about abuse?

Female with pony tail, mouth wide open, screaming, with string wrapped over her face with slogan "This is your secret, not mine."
Knowing the signs of abuse can help save a life — So, let’s talk about abuse!

Abuse can come in many forms and it happens far too often in homes around the world. In this second of a series about abuse, we’ll take a look again at the various types of abuse. Knowing the various signs and symptoms of abuse, and being aware of the impact on someone’s mental health could help save a life. So yes, let’s talk about abuse.

Trigger warning: If talks of abuse, rape, and suicide make you uncomfortable, please do not read this article.

One in five adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced at least one form of child abuse, whether emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence or abuse, before the age of 16 years (8.5 million people), according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). These figures just hint at the number of adults who suffered abuse during their childhood and the impact it has had on lives.

You can’t change the world alone – you will need some help – and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.

William H McRaven

Some forms of abuse

  • Physical Abuse — most likely the easiest form of abuse to spot as it’s non-accidental harm to a body. It ranges from physical injuries such as pushing, slapping, punching, hitting, biting or wounding to things like inappropriately restraining, denying basic needs like water and food, denying or deliberate mismanagement of medication.
Lady's bare back with writing in green saying Is this Love? and black painted writing Love shouldn't hurt.
Emotional abuse is more difficult to
spot as there are no physical signs
  • Psychological/Emotional Abuse — often more difficult to spot as it’s mostly done in private and doesn’t have any physical effects. It can be threats of abandonment, deprivation of emotional and physical contact, intimidation, humiliation or deprivation of cultural/religious needs.
  • Domestic Violence — we covered that here. However, people ought to be aware that domestic violence isn’t always just physical and also includes ‘honour crimes’ and forced marriages.
  • Sexual Abuse — includes sexual acts that you haven’t consented to, sexual assault and rape, pornography, online sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
  • Older person Abuse — might include not caring for someone properly, pressuring someone to give away money or property, psychological eg threats, harassment or forcing someone to live somewhere they don’t want to and physical violence or sexual.
  • Financial or Material AbuseWarning on the increase since Coronavirus: could be fraud and internet scams – I’ve had several obvious scam requests from Paypal to login etc, which I marked as Spam. However, it’s been common lately for some elderly and vulnerable people to have been scammed already. Watch out! Financial abuse might also include theft or controlling all finances; property or inheritance.
  • Discriminatory Abuse — unequal treatment of people due to race, age, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation.
  • Organisational Abuse — might include abuse or neglect and poor care practice within an organisation or specific care setting such as a care home or a hospital or in relation to care provided in one’s own home. This could be one off incidents or on-going ill-treatment of cared for people. There could be more than one abuser and sometimes managers collude with or ignore the abusers.
Black and white photo with grey hand irons with words in black saying "Modern Slavery"
Modern slavery is a relatively hidden crime — know the signs
  • Modern slavery — a relatively hidden crime and targets people living in unstable conditions i.e. forced to live in poor conditions; basement of building while skivvying for little or no pay. It could include slavery, and human trafficking, and in the UK alone, in 2013 there was 1,746 cases of Modern Slavery reported.
  • Neglect and Acts of Omission — aspects of neglect such as deprivation of clothing, shelter, food or heating. Abusers can also harm victims by ignoring their physical or medical needs, which might occur in a care home by banning visitors, isolating or ignoring and mismanagement of medication.
  • Self-Neglect — is a bit different to the other forms of abuse as it’s normally an individual who inflicts it upon themselves i.e. not attending to activities of daily living like not washing or brushing their teeth, not keeping their environment clean and safe or not looking after their physical and mental health. These people are often somewhat at risk of other types of abuse, due to their vulnerability i.e. allowing or being forced to entertain drug use in their home.
  • Child Abuse — when a child is intentionally harmed by an adult or another child – it can be over a period of time but can also be a one-off action. It can be physical, sexual or emotional and it can happen in person or online. It can also be a lack of love, care and attention – this is neglect, NSPCC.

Child abuse also comes in many forms and we’ll explore it further during this series of “Let’s talk about abuse”. However, if you’re worried about a child, and don’t know what to do, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on this number: 08088005000 for immediate help and support.

Large red question mark with a caricature white man leaning up against it - thinking

For any other help or support services, you might find what you’re looking for in this Useful Mental Health Contact List here, and if not, I’m happy to help. I look forward to your comments, thoughts and any questions. I listed the various forms of abuse in no particular order and if there’s an area you’d prefer I write about next, please let me know.