What is child abuse?
||How can you tell if a child is being abused?
All parents upset their children sometimes. Saying ‘no’ and
managing difficult behaviour is an essential part of
Tired or stressed parents can lose control and can do or say
something they regret, and may even hurt the child. If severe or if
it this happens often, it can seriously harm the child. That is why
abuse is defined in law. The Children Act 1989 states that abuse
should be considered to have happened when someone's actions have
caused a child to suffer ‘significant harm’ to their health or
‘Significant harm’ means that someone is:
- punishing a child too much
- hitting or shaking a child
- constantly criticising, threatening or rejecting a child
- sexually interfering with or assaulting a child
- not looking after a child – not giving them enough to eat,
ignoring them, not playing or talking with them or not making sure
that they are safe.
Who abuses children?
Children are usually abused by someone in
their immediate family circle. This can include parents, brothers
or sisters, babysitters or other familiar adults. It is quite
unusual for strangers to be involved.
Children may present with a variety of
difficulties and behaviours depending on where, when and the type
of abuse they have experienced.
It can be hard to detect long-standing abuse
by an adult the child is close to. It is often very difficult for
the child to tell anyone about it, as the abuser may have
threatened to hurt them if they tell anybody. A child may not say
anything because they think it is their fault, that no one will
believe them or think they will be teased or punished. The child
may even love the abusing adult. They want the abuse to stop, but
they don't want the adult to go to prison or for the family to
Some of the signs of abuse are
Physically abused children
- be watchful, cautious or wary of adults
- be unable to play and be spontaneous
- be aggressive or abusive
- bully other children or are being bullied themselves
- be unable to concentrate, underachieve at school and avoid
activities that involve removal of clothes, e.g. sports
- have temper tantrums and behave thoughtlessly
- lie, steal, truant from school and get into trouble with the
- find it difficult to trust other people and make friends.
Sexually abused children
- suddenly behave differently when the abuse starts
- think badly of themselves
- not look after themselves
- use sexual talk or ideas in their play that you would usually
see only in someone much older
- withdraw into themselves or be secretive
- under-achieve at school
- start wetting or soiling themselves
- be unable to sleep
- behave in an inappropriately seductive or flirtatious way
- be fearful, frightened of physical contact
- become depressed and take an overdose or harm themselves
- run away, become promiscuous or take to prostitution
- drink too much or start using drugs
- develop an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.
Emotionally abused or
neglected children may:
- be slow to learn to walk and talk
- be very passive and unable to be spontaneous
- have feeding problems and grow slowly
- find it hard to develop close relationships
- be over-friendly with strangers
- get on badly with other children of the same age
- be unable to play imaginatively
- think badly of themselves
- be easily distracted and do badly at school.
Where can I get help?
Help to look after the child
First and foremost, the child must be
protected from further abuse. If you suspect that a child is being
abused, you may be able to help them to talk about it.
Social Services will need to be involved to
- what has happened
- if it is likely to happen again
- what steps are needed to protect the child.
Your local Social Services Child Protection
Adviser will be able to offer more detailed advice. It is helpful
to speak to them even if you are not sure. Remember, all of us need
to protect the child from further harm.
After investigation, Social Services may be
satisfied that the problems have been sorted out, and that the
parents can now care for and protect the child properly. If so,
they will remain involved only if the family wants their help. If
Social Services are concerned that a child is being harmed, they
will arrange a child protection case conference. The parents and
professionals who know the child will be invited. A plan will be
made to help the child and family and ensure that there is no
When a child has been abused within the
family, the person involved is sometimes able to own up to what
they have done and want help. They can then be helped to look after
their child better.
Occasionally, the child may have to be taken
away from the abusing adult because the risks of physical and
emotional harm are great. This can be for a short time, until
things become safer, or may be permanent.
Many children need specialist treatment because of the abuse
they have endured. Some receive help from family centres run by
Social Services. If they are worried, depressed or being very
difficult, the child and family might need help from the local
child and adolescent mental
health services (CAMHS). These specialists may work
with the whole family or with children and adolescents alone.
Sometimes they work with teenagers in groups. Individual therapy
can be especially helpful for children who have been sexually
abused, or who have experienced severe trauma. Children who have
suffered serious abuse or neglect can be difficult to care for, and
the services can offer help and advice to parents and carers.
Kate, 16, talks about her abuse
"It started when I was about 8 and my and
I sister went to stay with my aunt and uncle. My sister, aunt and
cousins went out, but I didn’t feel well so I stayed behind. My
uncle said he had a game that would make me feel better. He said it
was a special game that we could play with my cousin’s Barbie doll.
In the game, Barbie got married and then went on her Honeymoon – he
said on a Honeymoon people do special things and he could show me
what they were, but I mustn’t tell anyone because I’d get into
He took Barbie’s clothes off and I don’t really remember what he
did next. He said he could show me how to play this game, that it
would make him happy. It’s really hard to talk about what happened
next. Then he made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone, he said
people wouldn’t understand and would get angry with me. Then he
gave me some sweets. After that, whenever I went to visit something
In the beginning he was quite nice to me and although I didn’t
want it to happen, I didn’t want to upset him. I’d pretend it
Then I began to get scared of him, he’d get angry. It got harder
to pretend it wasn’t happening and I thought about it a lot, I felt
really sad. My mum asked if anything was wrong but I couldn’t tell
her – he said she would be angry with me and that anyway no one
would believe me. I felt so upset and scared and trapped – I
couldn’t tell anyone and couldn’t stop it.
I started to cut myself. I told my friend at school, she said
she’d seen a programme when a girl rang Childline. She helped me
find the number and let me use her mum’s phone.
They talked to me, that made me feel better. My friend told her
mum, she told my mum. Mum was really upset but not angry – she said
she was sad it had happened. That it wasn’t my fault. She spoke to
the police. A policewoman and social worker came to see me, they
were really nice. They asked me to tell them what had happened – it
took me a long time. It wasn’t like on The Bill or anything, it was
in a really ordinary room, not in a police station. They arrested
We don’t see my aunt now or my cousins because they are upset
that mum spoke to the police. Mum says its better that we did, that
it’s better it stopped and that we’re safe. I feel a lot better
Works with families and children in many ways, including
counselling, fostering and adoption, support for young carers,
training and disability inclusion.
Provides a free and confidential service for children. Helpline
NSPCC (National Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Children) - Has a number of
useful publications. If you are worried about a child, call the
NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.
The Hideout - A
website offering support and advice to children whose lives are
affected by domestic abuse.
Young Carers - A
website offering support, information and advice for children who
also act as carers.
Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’
Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).
With grateful thanks to Dr Virginia Davies, Dr
Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy..
This resource reflects the best possible
evidence at the time of writing.
© Royal College of Psychiatrists March
Due for review March 2020