Child Abuse and Neglect: The Four Main Types

Child Abuse and Neglect: The Four Main Types

Child abuse is the maltreatment of a child by another person – by adults or children.  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 in an institutional, educational or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others unknown to them e.g. via the internet.

Child abuse and neglectful behaviour can and does happen to children from any background, culture, class, ethnicity or faith and can be physical, sexual or emotional. It is important that everyone involved in recognising the signs of child abuse understand the physical indicators and symptoms.

Signs of Physical abuse

Most children will collect cuts and bruises as part of the rough-and-tumble of daily life. Injuries should always be interpreted in light of the child’s medical and social history. Most accidental bruises are seen over bony parts of the body e.g. elbows, knees, shins and are often on the front of the body.

Some children, however, will have bruising that is more likely to be inflicted rather than accidental. Indicators of physical abuse could include bruises or injuries that are either unexplained or inconsistent with the explanation given, or visible or the ‘soft’ parts of the body where accidental injuries are unlikely, this could be on their cheeks, abdomen, back and buttocks.  Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, drowning, burning or scalding, poisoning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child or failing to protect a child from that harm. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces illness in a child.

Signs of Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse involves someone forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. In fact, the majority of children who are sexually abused by a carer will have no visible signs at all, due to the attacker not wanting to leave evidence, amongst many other reasons in the grooming process.

Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males; women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children. The activities may involve physical contact including both penetrative and non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching the outside of clothing.

They may also include non-contact activities, such as watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images and grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).

Signs of Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe adverse effects on the child’s health and emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person.

Emotional abuse can be difficult to measure, as there are often no outward physical signs. Indicators of emotional abuse may include interactions that are beyond the child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child from interacting socially with other children or adults. It could involve rejecting or ignoring a child completely, using degrading language or behaviour towards them, threatening or bullying them and encouraging them to develop behaviours that are self-destructive.

Emotional abuse also includes radicalising a child or young person who may be subsequently drawn into terrorist-related activity. People, who work in specified occupations, including health and education, must report it if they suspect someone is being drawn into terrorism (known as the Prevent duty).

Signs of Neglect

Neglect can be a difficult form of abuse to recognise, yet it can have some of the most lasting and damaging effects on children. One in 10 children have experienced neglect* and neglect is a factor in 60 percent of serious case reviews**.

Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. The physical signs of neglect may include constant hunger, sometimes stealing food from other children constantly dirty or ‘smelly’, loss of weight, or being constantly underweight and inappropriate clothing for the conditions.

The following changes in behaviour in a child or young person may indicate neglect and these include complaining of being tired all the time, not requesting medical assistance and/or failing to attend appointments, having few friends and mentioning being left alone or unsupervised.

These definitions and indicators are not meant to be definitive, but to be viewed as guidance. It is important to remember that many children may exhibit some of these indicators at some time and that the presence of one or more should not be taken solely as proof that abuse is occurring. There are many kinds of support available to children and young people who have experienced abuse once it has been disclosed or identified.

It is important that everyone working with children and young people is able to recognise the signs of possible abuse and neglect. Try a free trial of our Child Protection courses today? 

*Source: Radford, L. et al. (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today

**Source:  Brandon, M. et al. (2013) Neglect and serious case reviews.

These topics are covered in EduCare for Education® our comprehensive e-learning service that will meet your key safeguarding, duty of care and compliance training needs. Get in touch to find out more.

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Child Protection, endorsed by Kidscape and Family Lives, is written to provide a basic awareness of child protection and introduces the fundamentals for anyone whose paid or unpaid work or leisure activity brings them into contact with children and young people.

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Child Protection Course

This five module course delivers five CPD hours and comprehensively covers:

  • what forms child abuse can take and the effects it can have
  • signs that may mean a child is suffering abuse and how to respond if a child confides in you
  • processes for reporting abuse
  • the child protection system
  • good practice guidelines.

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