The signs and symptoms of child abuse

Abuse of a child can happen anywhere and can be committed by anyone known or unknown to the child or their family. The abuse of a child can have long term damage to a child and can completely change their family. Abuse can happen in different forms such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and sexual abuse of a child. Bullying and domestic violence are also forms of child abuse.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse can come in many forms which include hitting or smacking a child, shaking a child, kicking and punching a child and also deliberately scalding a child with hot liquids and attempting to suffocate. Deliberately giving a child harmful substances, such as drugs, alcohol or poison can also be a form of abuse. A parent or carer can also be found guilty of abuse if they report non-existent symptoms of illness in a child, or deliberately causes illness in a child which is known as Munchauser’s syndrome by proxy. Munchausen syndrome is when a primary carer – usually the mother deliberately makes a child sick or convinces others that the child is sick.

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Making a child sick is obvious a form of physical abuse, while convincing others that the child is sick may not seem abusive; the actual medical investigations can be extremely invasive and stressful process. Physical abuse can have a fatal result on some children such as in cases like Victoria Climbie where the child died from the result of physical abuse but in others causes it can cause damage and long lasting effects such as physical injury, brain damage, disability and long term emotional problems. A child’s health and development can also be affected by physical abuse which can have an effect on their education, social development and happiness.

Abusers can be cunning and premeditated when it comes to physical abuse. It isn’t always easy to see physical abuse, abusers can be very knowledgeable when abusing. They will ensure not to leave markings or leave bruising where others will see them. Bruises, black eyes and broken bones are obvious signs of physical abuse. Other signs of physical abuse include:

  • Injuries that the child cannot explain or explains unconvincingly
  • Untreated or inadequately treated injuries
  • Injuries to parts of the body where accidents are unlikely, such as thighs, back, abdomen
  • Bruising which looks like hand or finger marks
  • Cigarette burns, human bites
  • Scalds and burns

A change in a child’s behaviour which could be seen by them withdrawn from situations or people or they may become sad or depressed could also be a sign of abuse. A child’s sleep may also be disturbed as the situation is playing on their minds while they are asleep.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to intimidation and manipulation. Emotional abuse works by constantly attacking a child in a verbal way, attacking the child’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth and trust in them selves. This will be done by either constantly telling them off or belittling them or by intimidation.

Emotional abuse can show signs such as:

  • Physical, mental and emotional development lags
  • Sudden speech disorders
  • Continual self-depreciation (‘I’m stupid, ugly, worthless, etc’)
  • Overreaction to mistakes
  • Extreme fear of any new situation
  • Inappropriate response to pain (‘I deserve this’)
  • Neurotic behaviour (rocking, hair twisting, self-mutilation)
  • Extremes of passivity or aggression

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is when a child or young person takes part in any kind of sexual activity with an adult or young person whether they are pressurised, tricked, forced or agreed to it. This can include kissing, touching the young person’s genitals or breasts, intercourse or oral sex. Encouraging a child to look at pornographic magazines, videos or sexual acts is also sexual abuse.

Physical signs of abuse

  • Pain, itching, bruising or bleeding in the genital or anal areas
  • Genital discharge or urinary tract infections
  • Stomach pains or discomfort walking or sitting
  • Sexually transmitted infections

Behavioural signs of abuse

  • They may become unusually quiet and withdrawn, or unusually aggressive.
  • The child may refuse to attend school or start to have difficulty concentrating so that their schoolwork is affected.
  • They may show unexpected fear or distrust of a particular adult or refuse to continue with their usual social activities.
  • They may start using sexually explicit behaviour or language, particularly if the behaviour or language is not appropriate for their age.
  • The child may describe receiving special attention from a particular adult, or refer to a new, “secret” friendship with an adult or young person.


Neglect is the lack of appropriate care of children, including love, stimulation, safety, nourishment, warmth, education and medical attention. It can have a serious effect on a child’s physical, mental and emotional development. For babies and very young children, it can be life-threatening. The neglect may not be deliberate but could indicate that the family need help or advice on raising their family.

Signs Observed

  • Dirty skin, offensive body odour, unwashed/uncombed hair
  • Dirty and/or under/oversized clothing
  • Dressed inappropriately for weather or situation
  • Frequently left unsupervised or alone for periods of time

Signs of Poor Health ; Malnutrition

  • Drowsiness
  • Untreated upper respiratory infections, itching, scratching, long existing skin eruptions, frequent diarrhoea
  • Bruises, lacerations or cuts that are infected, untreated illnesses
  • Begging or stealing food, frequently hungry, rummaging through rubbish bins for food
  • Gorging self, eating in large gulps, hoarding food, obesity, overeating junk foods

Signs which might also be seen in children of school age can include

  • Falls asleep in class, often seems in a fog or dream world
  • Comes to school early or late, does not want to go home
  • Troublesome at school, does no homework, refuses to try, destroys books, assignments and learning aids or toys
  • Withdrawn, overactive, underactive and/or lethargic (depressed)
  • Frequently absent or late for school