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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » The Types and Signs of Child Abuse

The Types and Signs of Child Abuse

Last updated on 28th March 2023

Child abuse is one of the most shocking phenomena in modern society. As a species, our innate response is to protect those who are amongst the most vulnerable, and the abuse of children violates the moral code that is deeply embedded within our socio-cultural context. The family is supposed to be a place of love and guidance; a social institution that aims to ensure that children’s needs are being met and that they are protected from the worst of society as they develop. Despite this, the abuse of children and young people is believed to be much more prevalent than statistics suggest; with recent figures indicating that one in five UK adults experienced maltreatment before the age of 16. As a result, all professionals who work alongside children and young people should be fully aware of the potential indicators of abuse. Safeguarding is everybody’s business.

This article will attempt to break down the numerous types of child abuse and the indicators associated with it. It will also provide an overview of the relevant policy and legislative framework in the UK, with reference to how this has been shaped by serious case reviews of high-profile incidences. We will also highlight appropriate safeguarding procedure, including what you should do if you suspect a child or young person is being or has been abused.

Defining Abuse

In the 2018 revision of the Working Together to Safeguard Children policy, the government defined child abuse as being:

“A form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or an institutional or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others. Abuse can take place wholly online, or technology may be used to facilitate offline abuse. Children may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children”.

This broad definition of the concept of abuse hints at the difficulties in defining it. Children can be harmed in many different ways. Each child’s experience of abuse is likely to be unique – it can be reoccurring or it can be a one-off event, and an individual may experience one or more types of abuse at any one time. Moreover, the boundary between what is considered abuse and what is perceived as being acceptable punishment is frequently changing and differs across generations.  Ultimately, child abuse is a result of coercion; a deliberate act of harm that impacts on the child’s physical or mental health and wellbeing in some way.

Prevalence of Abuse

Due to the often hidden nature of abuse, statistics pertaining to its true prevalence are impossible to obtain. However, in March 2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated that one in five adults experienced some form of child abuse before the age of 16; with over 20% of respondents referring to at least one type of child abuse.

We also know that at the end of 2019, it was reported 52,260 children were the subject of a child protection plan, in comparison with 49,960 in 2015. However, this increase may be due to an increased awareness of the potential dangers of under-investigating causes of abuse.

Who is the Abuser?

The person to blame for child abuse is the perpetrator, and in most cases, this is somebody that the child already knows. It could be anyone that the child comes into contact with, including:

  • Parent
  • Sibling
  • Relative
  • Family friend
  • Paid or volunteer carer
  • A professional, including teachers, social care workers, or those in health care, amongst others
  • A complete stranger.

It is noted that any person could potentially be the perpetrator of abuse despite their perceived demographic status. However, evidence has suggested that the risk does increase if there is:

  • Family history of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Parental mental health issues
  • History of violence in the family
  • Maltreatment of animals
  • Vulnerable and unsupported parents.

Types of Abuse

As previously mentioned there are various types of abuse, and each individual may experience one or more of these at any given time. In the UK, these are divided into four umbrella categories which are:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Sexual
  • Neglect.

Policy and Legislation

There are no specific laws regarding child abuse in the UK, and instead, safeguarding and the importance of ensuring the protection of children’s health and wellbeing is governed by a myriad of different measures. The term safeguarding is used to refer to the process of identifying and supporting children who are suffering or are likely to suffer from harm.

Policy and legislation surrounding child abuse is a devolved responsibility, which means that each of the devolved nations has varied measures in place to safeguard children from harm. Furthermore, laws related to child abuse differentiate between criminal law and civil law. Criminal law is in place to ensure justice for those who have perpetrated abuse, whereas civil law refers to the obligations of societal institutions to minimise the risk of harm.

Some examples of relevant legislation include:

United Nations Convention on the Rights to a Child (1989): The UNCRC sets out the rights afforded to all children and young people around the world, including the right to life and the right to be protected from abuse and neglect. As the UK has ratified this agreement, they are obligated to ensure that these 54 rights are appropriately implemented.

Children and Young Persons Act 1933: This is one of the oldest examples of law that is still relevant to this day, and it was one of the first measures to outline a list of offences specifically against children.

Children Act 1989: The current child protection system in England is guided by the Children Act 1989, and this was the first measure to establish the thresholds of State intervention with regard to child abuse. It also outlined the concept of parental responsibility, as well as the obligations of local authorities to act in loco parentis for children and young people who are not able to remain in the family home.

Children Act 2004: The amendments included in this Act were in response to the report conducted by Lord Laming after the death of Victoria Climbié. The Committee acknowledged that there were several failings by professionals, agencies and the local authority to implement proper procedure.  The measure was primarily concerned with the implementation of the Every Child Matters agenda. This was based on the fact that every child should enjoy five outcomes: stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution to society and achieve economic wellbeing.

Children and Social Work Act 2017: This Act made significant changes regarding the corporate responsibilities of the State for looked after children and care givers. It also meant that local authorities no longer had to have Local Safeguarding Boards (LSCBs). Instead, new local arrangements should be formed through the establishment of the three safeguarding partners – Local Authorities, NHS Clinical Commission Groups and Police Forces. A Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel was also established by the Secretary of the State.

Working Together to Safeguard Children: This has been updated several times, most recently in July 2018 to incorporate the changes from the 2017 Children and Social Work Act. All related organisations are required to implement Working Together guidance, which focuses on the importance of ensuring a multi-agency approach to safeguarding.

Serious Case Reviews

Throughout the history of the UK’s child protection system, changes to the legal framework have often been in response to high-profile cases of child abuse. Some examples include:

The Children Act 1989 was shaped by the response to the death of Maria Colwell; a 7-year-old who was killed by her stepfather in 1973.

A review into the murder of 10-year-old Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002 changed the hiring process. The resulting Bichard Report formed the foundations of the Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) check, which is now known as Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS). This means that anyone who works with children should be properly vetted for any previous criminal offences.

The 2004 Children Act was implemented after Laming’s review of the case of Victoria Climbié. Climbié was an 8-year-old girl who died in 2000, after several years of abuse at the hands of her great aunt. This high-profile case highlighted the serious failings across the system, with several ‘missed opportunities’ noted.

In 2009, Lord Laming’s Committee produced a second progress report after the death of Peter Connelly, also referred to as Baby P. This also concluded that further changes needed to be made, with 54 recommendations for across the system.

From 2012 onwards, the widespread practice of child sexual exploitation in the UK became apparent. In Rochdale alone, the abuse was ongoing for decades and affected thousands. Within a staggering number of these cases, there was a significant failure to recognise the ongoing abuse. This failure to protect vulnerable individuals, including many that were classed as being looked after by the State, was criticised significantly across the Case Review.

Operation Yewtree was first implemented by the police in 2012. It later brought a number of historical cases of child abuse into public discussion, including cases with high-profile offenders such as Jimmy Saville. This resulted in an increased focus on historical abuse and changes to the policy and procedure to encourage adults who experienced abuse as a child to come forward.

Types and Signs of Abuse

Anyone who works with children should be aware of the possible signs of abuse. The NSPCC state that signs of abuse are likely to differ depending on each individual, with some being more obvious changes in behaviour than others. It is noted that multiple things could be going on in the child or young person’s life that may result in similar signs. Whilst the indicators discussed below may be indicative of abuse, they must be considered in relation to the child’s development and unique situation.


Children can be quite clumsy, and some bruising and cuts are fairly common. However, accidental injury tends to be on the bony areas, such as the elbows, knees and shins. If a child show signs of being frequently injured and yet the explanations are not sufficient, there may be a need for further investigation. Physical abuse is ultimately any form of physical harm that is not accidental. It could include hitting, shaking, throwing, burning, drowning, and providing unnecessary medical treatment, as well as shaking or hitting babies and infants.

Signs of physical abuse may include:

  • Injuries without an adequate explanation or different explanations between the parent and the child
  • Injuries on soft parts of the body
  • Reluctance to show skin could be an attempt to cover injuries
  • Change in child’s demeanour
  • Expressing fear towards adults
  • ‘Flinching’ when approached.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is one of the most common types of abuse in the UK and it refers to ongoing psychological maltreatment which impacts on emotional development. It is sometimes referred to as psychological abuse and it could include humiliation, isolation, making jokes about a child, gaslighting, ignoring the child and a failure to show loving emotions.

Signs of emotional abuse can include:

  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Harmful interactions with parent or guardian
  • Hiding or stealing food
  • Changes in behaviour or emotional state
  • Running away
  • Developmental delay.

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse refers to coercing or forcing a child into sexual activities or to engage in behaviour that is sexually inappropriate. This also includes child sexual exploitation and grooming, with the latter referring to online sexual abuse with the intent of abusing them at a later date.

Child sexual abuse is categorised as being contact and/or non-contact abuse, with the former referring to incidences in which the abuser has made physical contact with the child. Non-contact sexual abuse could involve forcing a child to witness sexual acts or pornography or making, viewing or distributing images of child abuse, amongst others.

Signs of sexual abuse may include:

  • Child possessing an awareness of sexual issues that is inappropriate for their age
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Acting in what is perceived to be a sexualised manner
  • Repeated urinary tract infections
  • A significant change in behaviour
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation.


Neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK, and it refers to a failure of the parent or guardian to ensure that the child’s needs are being met. This may include their physical needs and emotional needs, with a failure to meet these potentially resulting in serious damage to the child’s health and development.

Signs of neglect can include:

  • Untreated medical or dental issues
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Failure of adults to respond to the child
  • Injuries which indicate a child has not been appropriately supervised such as burns and falls
  • Poor state of clothing
  • Poor hygienic practices
  • Infestations such as scabies or lice
  • Unsuitable home environment
  • Poor language, communication or social skills.

Specific Types of Abuse

UK policy also makes specific mention to child abuse in the following scenarios:

Bullying and Cyberbullying

The experience of being bullied ultimately results in emotional and physical harm. Within a guidance document from the Department of Education, bullying is defined as being:

“Behaviour by an individual or group repeated over time that intentionally hurts another individual or groups either physically or emotionally.”

Ultimately, it is any behaviour that hurts someone else. It can happen anywhere, and it is often repeated for a long period of time. Children who are bullied are at an increased experienced risk of being diagnosed with mental health issues, may have trouble forming relationships and may underachieve at school. They are also more likely to have lower self-esteem, which can last until adulthood. Bullying can be physical or psychological and may include name-calling, hitting, spreading rumours, threats, manipulation and humiliation, amongst others.

Cyberbullying is similar yet it takes place online. This can have a significant impact on children and young people due to the amount of access that they have on the internet.

Signs that your child is being bullied may include:

  • Belongings getting lost or damaged without a suitable explanation
  • Problems eating or sleeping
  • Changes in attitude towards education
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Self-destructive behaviours
  • Sudden loss of friends
  • Avoiding social situations.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Child Sexual Exploitation, or CSE, is a form of child sexual abuse, in which a child or young person is exploited for sexual purposes. The government definition is that it occurs “where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator”.

They may be contacted in person or online, with the perpetrator often spending time building a relationship with their victim. Some children or young people are coerced into believing that this is a loving and consensual relationship, and they may not necessarily understand that it is abuse. As a result, it is the responsibility of professionals surrounding the young person to be able to identify this form of abuse.

Signs of CSE may include:

  • Unhealthy or age-inappropriate sexual behaviours
  • Secretive behaviour
  • Changes in attitude towards education
  • Changes in behaviour, mood or character
  • New possessions that they cannot or will not explain
  • Physical signs of abuse
  • Contracting sexually transmitted infections
  • Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Frequently staying out late
  • Gang involvement
  • Involvement in criminal activities.


Grooming is often correlated with CSE and it refers to the process of an adult building up a relationship with a child or young person to abuse or exploit them. This is often done for the purpose of sexually abusing a child and it is often carefully planned and can take place over long periods. Adults may pose as children, a mentor, or an authoritative figure and they may contact a child via various sources, such as online gaming, chat rooms and social media; with official figures indicating that 19,000 children are groomed online each year. It is often something that we associate with online abuse but it can also occur in person and it could be someone that you know.

Signs that a child may be being groomed:

  • Being secretive about time spent
  • Underage drinking or drug use
  • New possessions without appropriate explanation
  • Change in behaviour
  • Change in mood or emotions
  • Change in online habits, such as spending more or less time on the internet
  • An inappropriate relationship with an adult
  • Receiving more messages than usual on their phone.

Child Trafficking

Child trafficking refers to a situation in which children and young people are “tricked, forced or persuaded to leave their homes” and go to another area where they are “exploited, forced to work or sold”. This could be outside of the UK or it could be to different parts of the country.

Children who are trafficked into the UK are often done so for modern slavery, but they may be trafficked for a number of reasons, such as sexual exploitation, forced marriage, domestic slavery, forced labour and criminal activities, amongst others. The signs of child trafficking may vary significantly, depending on the type of trafficking they have been subject to, but some common signs may include:

  • Unregistered with school GP
  • Living apart from family
  • Spends significant time doing household chores or ‘work’
  • Reluctance to share information
  • Injuries from workplace accidents
  • Unaware of their current location
  • Unsure of personal details.

Female Genital Mutilation

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to deliberate alterations or removal of a female’s genitals for non-medical purposes. There are no acceptable reasons for this to take place and the procedure can have a significantly negative impact on the physical and mental health of the individual.

FGM has various names, depending on the socio-cultural context in which it occurs, and there are several different procedures that the term includes. Ultimately, any form of FGM is a form of child abuse, and it is covered by specific guidance and legislation. In the UK, FGM is illegal and people may attempt to take a girl outside of the country to conduct the procedure. This is also against the law and anyone who fails to protect a child from FGM can face up to 7 years in prison.

Possible signs of FGM:

  • Constant pain
  • Difficulty having sex
  • Repeated infections
  • Difficulty walking, standing or sitting
  • Appearing quiet or depressed
  • Reluctance to undergo a routine medical examination
  • An unexpected or long absence from school.

Criminal Exploitation and Gang-Related Abuse

Child abuse can also occur within gangs and children or young people may potentially be coerced into partaking in criminal activities; also known as criminal exploitation. It is important to note that there are many different types of gangs, and not all of them are negative or engaged in criminal activity.

However, in some situations, gang involvement may indicate child abuse. A young person may be recruited into a gang if they suit the gang’s overall motive or for criminal exploitation. Multiple methods are employed to do this, including peer pressure, a desire to gain status or to feel protected, or they could be encouraged by money.

Signs that a child may have experienced this could include:

  • Frequent absences from school
  • Going missing or running away
  • Changes in behaviour or mood
  • Change in online habits, such as spending more time on social media
  • Change in their social group
  • Drinking/substance misuse.
Young Man with Cigarette

Domestic Abuse

Section 120 of the 2002 Adoption and Children Act included witnessing domestic violence as a form of child abuse. Studies have shown that witnessing domestic abuse can have a significant impact on children, with evidence to suggest that children who witness it in the family home are more likely to experience violence in their adult relationships.

Domestic abuse refers to any form of coercive, controlling, violent behaviour or bullying by an intimate partner. It is estimated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience it at some point in their lives.

Possible signs of witnessing domestic abuse may include:

  • Bedwetting, insomnia or frequent nightmares
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Increased aggression.

Non-Recent Abuse

Since 2016, there has been an increased awareness regarding the importance of reporting historical abuse, also known as non-recent abuse. Some allegations may refer to abuse at the hands of an institution, but this is not always the case. There are multiple different ways that a person can abuse, and each of these can be harmful and have long-lasting consequences.  There is some evidence to indicate that those who experience child abuse struggle to form positive relationships in adult life and may end up experiencing domestic abuse. They are also at an increased risk of being diagnosed with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and PTSD. Across the UK, there are several charities and organisations aimed at supporting adults who experienced abuse as a child, and they can help with counselling and support.

What To Do if You Suspect Child Abuse in the UK

If you perceive a child to be in immediate danger as a result of child abuse, you should contact the police by calling 999. Alternatively, for non-emergency situations, you can call 101 or report it online.

Whilst the professionals involved may be able to give some indication to what is likely to happen, they will not be able to provide further details into the case. However, if there is clear evidence that the child is experiencing abuse, a crisis intervention approach is likely to be implemented. This means that the children will be removed from the home and placed in temporary foster care. Under section 47 (1) of the 1989 Children Act, the local authority has a duty to ensure that they investigate if there is “reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm”. The implementation of an emergency protection order is outlined under section 44 of the same Act.

All professionals who work with children should be appropriately trained regarding correct safeguarding procedure. Furthermore, your institution should have a Safeguarding Officer to report your concern to as part of the multi-agency team around the child.

Child Abuse Statistics

In March 2020, it is was reported that one in five adults aged between 18 and 74 experienced at least one form of child abuse before they turned 16.

The experience of abuse can have long-lasting effects into adulthood, with 50% of people who experienced abuse as a child being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and sleep disorders in adult life.

For most types of abuse, girls are the most likely victim, except physical abuse in which there is no difference between sex.

It is estimated that only one in eight victims of sexual abuse report the crime to the police.

Ninety per cent of sexual abuse incidents are perpetrated by someone that the child or young person knows.

Sexual abuse accounts for nearly half of all counselling sessions conducted by ChildLine.


Within his seminal review of child protection services across England and Wales, Munro stated that “the problems faced by children are complicated and the cost of failure is high”. For professionals who work with children and young people, safeguarding should always be a priority, and this article has outlined what child abuse is and some of the possible symptoms associated with the different types of abuse. It has illustrated that, fundamentally, abuse is a complex concept that is unique to the individuals. Moreover, it has discussed the legislation in place to prevent abuse and how this has been shaped by high-profile cases.

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About the author

Sarah Wilkinson

Sarah Wilkinson

Sarah graduated in 2012 from Trinity St. David, University of Wales, with a 1st class honours degree in Social Inclusion and Justice. After her studies, she taught English around the world for almost 8 years, spending several years in Turkey and Spain.

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