What is child abuse – Part 3

March 16, 2015 12:18 pm

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at what child abuse is. We’ve gone through the different types of abuse, now I want to take you through the general signs of child abuse.


The behaviours of children who are being abused manifest themselves in different ways. Each child is different. As such, how they react to child abuse will be different. That said, children being abused may display similar behaviours which can help you to spot abuse. It is important to remember that these signs are not evidence of child abuse, however, they are signs that there may be a problem the child or young person is struggling with and that needs further investigation.


It is important to remember abused children are likely to be frightened to tell anyone about the abuse. An abused child may struggle with a heavy emotional burden, they may struggle with feelings of guilt, shame or confusion, particularly if the abuser is a parent, caregiver or other close family member or friend.


If you work with children or young people you need to be vigilant to the signs. The general signs to watch out for are:


  • Experiencing nightmares on a regular basis or sleeping problems.
  • Changes to their
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Changes to their eating habits.
  • Showing an unexplainable fear of certain places or making excuses to avoid certain
  • Self-harming such as head banging (against a wall, door, bed post etc), scratching, cutting.
  • Not receiving adequate medical attention after injuries.
  • Demonstrating violence to animals, toys, peers or adults.
  • Showing a ‘knowledge’ of adult issues such as alcohol, drugs, sexual behaviour.
  • Having a lack of confidence or often being wary or
  • Showing regressed behaviour to that of a younger child.
  • Flinching regularly in response to sudden but harmless actions, for example, someone raising a hand quickly.


A child’s age and development is an important factor as to whether or not a their behaviour or appearance is concerning. Children with learning difficulties, physical disabilities or health-related issues may be at a different developmental stage to most of their peers. Be aware, however, that children who have experienced abuse or neglect from a young age may also display developmental delays compared to children their own age. If that is the case, if there is not a clear medical explanation for the delays, they may be an indication of abuse. Also, be vigilant if a child is frequently ill without medical explanation.


We’ll take each age group in turn and look at the types of signs which may appear at each stage of a child’s development.


Infancy to preschool

  • The child doesn’t cry or respond to parent’s presence or absenc This may be as a result of them learning a parent or caregiver will not respond to their cries of distress. Clinically, this is known as a lack of attachment.
  • A child is late in reaching their developmental milestones such as learning to speak, and there is no medical reason for this.
  • A child displays excessive violence with other children.
  • A child is very underweight though eats well when given food.
  • A child tells you about being left with strangers or of being left home alone.
  • Has injuries which a parent/caregiver cannot explain
  • The child talks about sexual behaviour
  • The child touches themselves publicly and/or uses toys in a sexualised way.
  • The child has visible signs of abuse such as soreness of the genitals, redness or unusual discharge


Middle childhood

  • A child talks about being left home alone or with strangers.
  • There is a lack of social skills and the child has few, if any,
  • Shows little to no distress when being left by a parent/caregiver or to a parent/caregiver being in the room with them.
  • Develops secretive tendencies and is reluctant to share information with you or friends.
  • Acting out excessive violence with other children
  • Has injuries a parent/caregiver cannot explain
  • The child displays sexualised behaviour such as masturbating in public
  • The child has visible signs of abuse,


School age (5 to 16 years)

  • The child avoids PE or is reluctant to get changed for PE.
  • The child struggles with toileting, may soil themselves during the day or wet the bed at night.
  • The child is reluctant to go home after school.
  • The child is not able to have friends visit their home and the family is reluctant to allow professionals to visit the home.
  • The child may have poor school attendance and/or punctuality, they may be late being picked up regularly with no after school care provisions being arranged.
  • The child’s parents demonstrate little interest in their child’s progress or behaviour at school.
  • If concerns are raised by the school or other professional, the parents/caregivers are dismissive and non-responsive.
  • The child demonstrates aggressive behaviours with their peers.
  • Has bruises/other injuries which a parents cannot explain and which are not normal for child of that age.
  • The child has sexual contact with older peers and may be pregnant when not have a boyfriend.



  • May be overprotective of younger siblings without explaining why.
  • Becomes secretive and reluctant to share information.
  • Young person is reluctant to take part in PE or get changed for PE.
  • The young person talks of running away.
  • The young person drinks alcohol to excess and/or takes drugs, and may have done so from an early age.
  • The young person acts out at school with challenging and/or disruptive behaviour
  • The young person may masturbate in public, have sexual contact with older peers or contract a sexually transmitted disease.


This guide is in no way exhaustive. As I said above, each child is different so abuse will affect each child n a different manner. If a child’s behaviour starts to change and there is no obvious explanation for it, then there may be an underlying problem which needs addressing. For the most part that problem is likely to be nothing serious but may be an emotional issue the child is struggling with. However, sometimes that underlying issue can be very serious and that requires you to take a stand for that child and act appropriately, within you professional boundaries.


If you have been affected by any of these issues you can contact the NSPCC here.

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Content Disclaimer

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this blog. Katherine T Young Ltd & Kate Young disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this blog.