Safeguarding Children:

What is Abuse?

What is Abuse?

Child abuse is any form of physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment of a child, or failure to provide adequate care that results in injury or harm to the child.

Abuse (also known as Significant Harm) can happen to a child of any age. Abusers can be anyone: 

  • Any age
  • Male or female (including sexual abuse)
  • From any social class, culture or faith
  • ‘Nice’ people
  • Professionals such as teachers, religious leaders or social workers
  • Related to the child
  • Other children

Categories of Abuse

There are four main categories of child abuse: 

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them. Children who are emotionally abused are usually suffering another type of abuse or neglect at the same time – but this isn’t always the case.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is deliberately hurting a child causing injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts. It isn’t accidental - children who are physically abused suffer violence such as being hit, kicked, poisoned, burned, slapped or having objects thrown at them. Shaking or hitting babies can cause non-accidental head injuries (NAHI). Sometimes parents or carers will make up or cause the symptoms of illness in their child, perhaps giving them medicine they don’t need and making the child unwell – this is known as fabricated or induced illness (FII).

There’s no excuse for physically abusing a child. It causes serious, and often long-lasting, harm – and in severe cases, death.

Sexual Abuse

A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This doesn't have to be physical contact, and it can happen online. Sometimes the child won't understand that what's happening to them is abuse. They may not even understand that it's wrong.


Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child's basic needs. A child may be left hungry or dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, supervision, medical or health care. A child may be put in danger or not protected from physical or emotional harm. They may not get the love, care and attention they need from their parents. A child who's neglected will often suffer from other abuse as well. Neglect is dangerous and can cause serious, long-term damage - even death.

Other Forms of Abuse

There are many other forms of abuse, such as abuse of children with a disability, racism, domestic abuse/violence, serious bullying; for more information go to one of the following useful websites:

Why children don't tell when they are being abused

Children often don’t tell anybody that they are being abused because they are frightened about what may happen to them or they feel they may not be believed. Although they want the abuse to stop they may love the abuser and don’t want him or her punished for the abuse.

 The Effects of Child Abuse

The effects of abuse are wide ranging and usually long lasting, and can include:

  • Low self esteem
  • Problematic behaviours
  • Educational problems
  • Delayed Development
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Mental health problems
  • Substance (drug and alcohol) misuse
  • Self harm including actual or attempted suicide
  • Difficulty in parenting their own children
  • Permanent disability
  • Death as a result of the abuse (particularly if physical abuse or neglect)
  • Failure to thrive and achieve the best of their ability

Fortunately children who are abused can be helped by professionals and families working together and helping them to recover from the effects of abuse. For that to happen, people working with or in contact with children or adults who are parents or carers have to be aware of the signs of possible abuse and refer the child to Children's Social Care and / or the Police.

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