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Child abuse is an appalling crime committed against some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. Unfortunately, child abuse is much more prevalent than many people think. It is extremely difficult to obtain accurate statistics about child abuse because many cases go undetected and unreported.
The statistics we can see are therefore under-representative of the real figures. Some worrying statistics available to us are:
- The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) stated that 20% of adults experienced at least one form of child abuse before the age of 16.
- More than 3 million adults were the victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16.
- In 2019, Childline delivered nearly 20,000 counselling sessions to children in the UK, where the primary concern was abuse.
- In England alone, nearly 50,000 children are in the care of the local authority because of child abuse.
- 65.9% of child abuse is committed by another child or young person.
- Over 90% of child abuse victims are abused by someone they know.
- In 2020, 2900 additional child abuse offences were recorded by police in England and Wales, compared to the previous year.
- Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of child abuse referrals from the NSPCC has increased by 79%.
These statistics show that child abuse is a major issue in the UK. However, many children and young people do not report abuse. Victims of abuse often take years to disclose the abuse. Others may disclose the abuse to someone close to them, such as a family member or friend, but may never report it to the police or other relevant authorities.
So why do children keep quiet about abuse? Unfortunately, there are many different reasons why a child may keep quiet. Today, we are going to look more closely at child abuse and some of the reasons why many children and young people stay quiet about abuse.
What is Child Abuse?
Child abuse is when a child or young person is intentionally harmed by another individual. The individual committing the abuse can be an adult or another child. Child abuse can occur as a one-off, isolated incident or it can be a repeated action that happens over a period of time.
Child abuse can have a devastating effect on a child’s life. It may affect their education, their relationships, their health and their mental wellbeing. Child abuse can have a lifelong impact and may result in the individual developing other life-altering conditions such as mental health difficulties, drug or alcohol addiction, and even harmful or criminal behaviour.
Experiencing child abuse can also make an individual more vulnerable to other forms of abuse. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) state that around 50% of adults who experienced child abuse also experienced domestic violence later in life.
The effects of child abuse may include:
- Physical health consequences – This could happen immediately, in the form of a serious injury, or may not emerge for several months or years. For example, a child who has been neglected or suffered malnutrition is much more likely to develop future health problems such as diabetes, vision impairment and brain damage.
- Psychological consequences – Children who have suffered child abuse are more likely to experience low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, individuals who experienced child abuse may be more likely to attempt suicide compared to others.
- Behavioural consequences – The negative impact of child abuse on the victim’s behaviour can be lifelong. An individual who has been abused is more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviours, engage in criminal activity, engage in risky or unhealthy sexual behaviour or be at higher risk of substance misuse.
What are the Different Types of Abuse?
There are many different types of abuse that a child can experience. We will look at the most common forms of child abuse in more detail below.
Physical abuse is when an individual physically hurts or harms a child intentionally. Some examples of physical abuse are hitting, kicking, shaking, biting, scratching, burning, poisoning or throwing a child.
Physical abuse may also include intentionally causing a child to become unwell or fabricating an illness. Physical abuse can be extremely damaging and dangerous.
Signs that a child is being physically abused may include:
- Broken bones.
- Unusual behaviour.
- Displaying negative emotions such as fear, anxiety or anger.
Some signs of physical abuse, such as bruising, may not be a result of physical abuse. A concerned adult should look for patterns and any signs that the explanation does not match the injury.
Sexual abuse is when a child is forced or tricked into sexual activity. This could be contact abuse, such as sexual touching or rape, or non-contact abuse, such as flashing, exposing a child to sexual acts, forcing a child to view inappropriate materials, or forcing them to engage in sexual conversation.
Children who are sexually abused may not understand the abuse or may be convinced or tricked into thinking it is acceptable. Signs of sexual abuse may be emotional, behavioural or physical.
These may include:
- Changes in behaviour towards a particular individual or place.
- Unexplained sexual knowledge.
- Sexualised behaviour.
- Self-harm or drug/alcohol misuse.
- Changes in appetite or attitudes towards food.
- Changes in emotional behaviour.
- Unexplained bruises.
- Sexually transmitted infections.
- Injury or pain in the genitalia.
Neglect is the most common form of child abuse and is characterised by a consistent and ongoing failure to meet the basic needs of a child.
Neglect can include:
- Physical Neglect – This includes not providing food, appropriate clothing or an appropriate living environment.
- Educational Neglect – Failure to ensure a child attends school or failure to support a child with their education.
- Emotional Neglect – This can include failure to nurture or care for a child, ignoring them, intimidating or threatening them, humiliating them or isolating them from family and friends.
- Medical Neglect – This may include not providing appropriate medical treatment or care, not taking a child to see a doctor if they are sick or injured and ignoring recommendations from medical professionals.
The signs of neglect can be difficult to detect as they are so wide-ranging. Concerned adults should stay vigilant and record and report any concerns that they have.
Signs of neglect may include:
- Poor hygiene.
- Inappropriate clothing.
- Hunger or showing signs of not eating enough.
- Health problems such as rashes, anaemia, regular infections or repeated illnesses.
- Dental problems or issues with dental hygiene.
- Issues with weight or growth.
- Consistent tiredness or fatigue.
- Being left alone and unaccompanied.
- Not attending school.
- Showing signs of self-harm or drug/alcohol misuse.
- Changes in behaviour.
- Displaying aggressive, withdrawn or anxious behaviour.
Psychological abuse, also known as emotional abuse, can be characterised as prolonged psychological mistreatment of a child. There are many different types of psychological abuse, including humiliating, bullying, threatening or constantly criticising a child.
Psychological abuse can also involve failing to promote a child’s social and emotional development, isolating a child, exposing them to domestic violence, only demonstrating negative emotions or providing negative feedback to a child, and forcing them to engage in behaviours or situations that they do not want to.
Signs of emotional abuse can be particularly difficult to identify. The signs can also differ depending on the age of the child and their personality.
Some signs that you may be able to identify are:
- Being withdrawn or extreme lack of confidence.
- Displaying emotions such as fear, anxiety or sadness.
- Displaying behaviour that challenges, such as aggression and violence.
- Difficulty making or maintaining relationships.
- Acting in a way that is unusual or inappropriate for their age.
Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)
Child Sexual Exploitation can be in person or online. Children may be tricked, coerced or forced into engaging in sexual activity. Exploited children may be given rewards or presents or they may be given drugs or alcohol.
Children or young people may be encouraged to engage in sexual behaviour by someone they know and trust and may be rewarded with affection and attention. In other cases, abusers may use violence or threats to force a child into engaging in sexual acts. If a child is groomed, they may not even realise that they are being exploited and abused.
Signs of CSE may include:
- Becoming secretive or withdrawn.
- Exhibiting changes in mood or behaviour.
- Inappropriate sexual knowledge or language.
- Having unexplained presents or money.
- Sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy.
- Unexplained absences from home.
- Staying out late or staying out all night.
- Having friends or relationships that they keep secret.
Why Children May Stay Quiet
The NSPCC reports that 1 in 3 children who experienced sexual abuse did not tell anyone at the time the abuse took place. Disclosure of abuse may not happen until the child is older and is already out of the situation where the abuse took place. In some cases, the abused individual may never reveal the abuse.
There are several reasons why a child or young person may stay quiet about abuse.
These may include:
Threats are one of the most common reasons why children stay quiet about abuse. The abuser may threaten them with violence or may threaten violence against someone that the child cares about, such as a family member or a pet.
An abuser may also tell the child that they will be removed from their family or their home if anyone finds out about the abuse. Abusers use threats as a way of intimidating the child to stay quiet so that they can continue to abuse them.
Feelings of shame
Feelings of guilt and shame are very common in abused individuals. An abused child may feel that the abuse was their fault, or they somehow caused it to happen. Instead of disclosing the abuse, they may try to change their behaviour or the way they act towards their abuser, such as trying to please them or avoid them.
Children may keep quiet about the abuse as they are worried that other people will also believe they caused the abuse and will blame them for what happened. They may also feel embarrassed, which may also encourage them to keep the abuse a secret.
Fear of not being believed
Children may not report abuse because they think that they will not be believed, or they will be accused of lying. There are several reasons why a child may have this mindset.
1. The abuser may manipulate the child into silence by convincing them that others will not believe their story.
2. Abuse often results in the abused individual developing low self-esteem. This could result in a child thinking that no one will believe them.
3. The abuser may be a respected member of the family or the community and the child may fear no one would believe they were capable of abuse.
4. They may have a history of adults not trusting or believing them. This may be particularly true if the abused child has engaged in anti-social behaviours or become involved with alcohol or drugs.
Wanting to protect the abuser
If a child is abused by someone they know or love, such as a family member or friend, they may not want this person to get into trouble. Having an emotional connection to their abuser can make reporting the abuse much more difficult. The child may believe that the consequence of reporting the abuse and having this person removed from their life is worse than allowing the abuse to continue. This may be especially true if the abuser is a parent or sibling.
They may not be aware that it is abuse
A child may not understand that what is happening to them is abuse. It may be that the abuser has always behaved this way and that this is the only environment or relationship that the child has ever known.
With victims of sexual abuse, it may be that the child has never been taught about this topic and is too young to understand what is happening to them. The abuser may also tell them that the abuse is normal and happens in all families. By the time the child realises they are being abused, they may feel it is too late to disclose the abuse.
They may not know who to tell
Disclosing abuse requires a huge amount of trust. An abused child may have feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment and may only feel able to disclose the abuse to a trusted adult. However, they may not feel that there is anyone in their life that they can reveal this information to.
An abused child may not have any trusted family members or friends. They may also not feel ready to reveal the abuse to an authority figure, such as a teacher, a doctor or a police officer. In this situation, it is likely that the abuse will not come to light until years later.
No one has ever asked them
A child may be more likely to disclose abuse if they are asked about it. They may be waiting for someone to notice the abuse is happening, as they do not have the courage to approach an adult directly.
Some abused children will not try to hide the abuse and may drop subtle hints to adults, such as saying they are scared to go home, or they never want to see a particular individual again. If an adult asks them if something is wrong or provides an opportunity for the child to open up, they may be more likely to disclose abuse.
What to Do if You Suspect a Child is Being Abused
As we have seen, many children will not report that they are being abused. It is therefore very important that adults are aware of the signs of abuse and always remain alert. It may be difficult to differentiate whether a child is being abused or whether the worrying signs, such as cuts and bruises, are a result of other factors.
Educating yourself on the signs of abuse can help, but it is important to bear in mind that all children are different, and the signs of abuse may manifest in different ways. If you are concerned a child is being abused, it is better to act upon your concerns rather than risk further harm to the child.
If you are concerned about child abuse, there are several actions you could take:
- Call 999 – If you believe a child is in immediate danger and you need rapid intervention, you should call 999 straight away.
- Contact the social care team – By reporting the suspected abuse to the children’s social care team at your local authority you are providing experts with the opportunity to gather evidence and act in the best interest of the child. Children’s social services work 24 hours a day, so if the abuse requires quick intervention, they can act immediately. If it does not require quick intervention, social services can speak to relevant professionals such as the family doctor and the child’s school. They can also visit the family home, perform an assessment and speak to all relevant individuals.
- Contact the NSPCC – If you are concerned about a child but are unsure about your best course of action, you can contact the NSPCC by phone – 0808 800 5000, by email – firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting their website.
If you are concerned a child is being abused but they have not disclosed the abuse to you and you are unsure on whether to report it, there are some other steps you could follow:
- Keep a diary – Keep a note of any concerns you have, including any changes in behaviour or emotions, any illnesses or absences that you notice, or anything else of concern. Always record any injuries, even if the child or their parents provide an explanation of how the injury occurred. You can use a body map to record physical injuries.
- Talk to the child – A child may want an opportunity to disclose the abuse but is too scared or embarrassed to begin the conversation themselves. Try to build a positive and trusting relationship with the child so they know they can confide in you.
- Speak to other people – Approach other people in the child’s life who may have noticed signs. This may include their teacher, doctor, neighbours or friends. If the individual is not a professional, you do not need to state that you are concerned about abuse but can instead ask if they have noticed any changes in behaviour or anything else of concern.
- Educate the child – You can open an honest dialogue with the child about abuse and the different forms of abuse. All children should be educated about abuse, so they know what is and is not acceptable and what to do if they feel they are being abused. By talking openly with children, we are removing the stigma and shame attached to abuse. You could also direct them to Childline, where children can learn about abuse and receive support, help and advice.