Children’s Abuse Signs and Symptoms

Below is a list of the signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse and neglect.

Domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is any type of controlling, bullying, threatening or violent behaviour between people in a relationship. But it isn’t just physical violence – domestic abuse includes emotional, physical, sexual, financial or psychological abuse.

Abusive behaviour can occur in any relationship. It can continue even after the relationship has ended. Both men and women can be abused or abusers.

Domestic abuse can seriously harm children and young people. Witnessing domestic abuse is child abuse, and teenagers can suffer domestic abuse in their relationships.

Children who witness domestic abuse may:

  • Become aggressive
  • Display anti-social behaviour
  • Suffer from depression or anxiety
  • Not do as well at school – due to difficulties at home or disruption of moving to and from refuges

Sexual abuse

A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This does not have to be physical contact and it can happen online. Sometimes the child won’t understand that what’s happening to them is abuse. They may not even understand that it’s wrong. Or they may be afraid to speak out.

There are two different types of child sexual abuse. These are called contact abuse and non-contact abuse. Contact abuse involves touching activities where an abuser makes physical contact with a child, including penetration. It includes:

  • Sexual touching of any part of the body whether the child’s wearing clothes or not
  • Rape or penetration by putting an object or body part inside a child’s mouth, vagina or anus
  • Forcing or encouraging a child to take part in sexual activity
  • Making a child take their clothes off, touch someone else’s genitals or masturbate

Non-contact abuse involves non-touching activities, such as grooming, exploitation, persuading children to perform sexual acts over the internet and flashing. It includes:

  • Encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
  • Not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
  • Meeting a child following sexual grooming with the intent of abusing them
  • Online abuse including making, viewing or distributing child abuse images
  • Allowing someone else to make, view or distribute child abuse images
  • Showing pornography to a child
  • Sexually exploiting a child for money, power or status (child exploitation)

Children who are sexually abused may:

  • Stay away from certain people
  • They might avoid being alone with people, such as family members or friends
  • They could seem frightened of a person or reluctant to socialise with them

Show sexual behaviour that’s inappropriate for their age:

  • A child might become sexually active at a young age
  • They might be promiscuous
  • They could use sexual language or know information that you wouldn’t expect them to

Physical symptoms including but not inclusive of:

  • Anal or vaginal soreness
  • An unusual discharge
  • Sexually transmitted infection (STI)


Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs and is the most common form of child abuse. Neglect is dangerous and can cause serious, long-term damage – even death. Neglect can be really difficult to identify, making it hard for professionals to take early action to protect a child.

Common forms of child neglect are:

Physical neglect

Failing to provide for a child’s basic needs such as food, clothing or shelter. Failing to adequately supervise a child,or provide for their safety.

Educational neglect

Failing to ensure a child receives an education.

Emotional neglect

Failure to meet a child’s needs for nurture and stimulation, perhaps by ignoring, humiliating, intimidating or isolating them. It’s often the most difficult to prove.

Medical neglect

Failing to access or provide appropriate health care, including dental care and also refusal of care for on-going medical conditions.

Signs and symptoms of child neglect:

Poor Appearance and Hygiene

  • Be smelly or dirty
  • Have unwashed clothes
  • Have inadequate clothing, e.g. not having a winter coat
  • Seem hungry or turn up to school without having breakfast or any lunch money
  • Have frequent and untreated nappy rash in infants

Health and Development Problems

  • Untreated injuries, medical and dental issues
  • Repeated accidental injuries caused by lack of supervision
  • Recurring illnesses or infections
  • Not been given appropriate medicines
  • Missed medical appointments such as vaccinations
  • Poor muscle tone or prominent joints
  • Skin sores, rashes, flea bites, scabies or ringworm
  • Thin or swollen tummy
  • Anaemia
  • Tiredness
  • Faltering weight or growth and not reaching developmental milestones (known as failure to thrive)
  • Poor language, communication or social skills

Housing and family difficulties

  • Living in an unsuitable home environment for example dog mess being left or not having any heating
  • Left alone for a long time
  • Taking on the role of carer for other family members

Online abuse

Online abuse is any type of abuse that happens on the web, whether through social networks, playing online games or using mobile phones. Children and young people may experience cyberbullying, grooming, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or emotional abuse.

Children can be at risk of online abuse from people they know, as well as from strangers. Online abuse may be part of abuse that is taking place in the real world (for example bullying or grooming). Or it may be that the abuse only happens online (for example persuading children to take part in sexual activity online).

Children can feel like there is no escape from online abuse – abusers can contact them at any time of the day or night, the abuse can come into safe places like their bedrooms, and images and videos can be stored and shared with other people.

Cyberbullying includes:

  • Sending threatening or abusive text messages
  • Creating and sharing embarrassing images or videos
  • ‘Trolling’ – the sending of menacing or upsetting messages on social networks, chat rooms or online games
  • Excluding children from online games, activities or friendship groups
  • Setting up hate sites or groups about a particular child
  • Encouraging young people to self-harm
  • Voting for or against someone in an abusive poll
  • Creating fake accounts, hijacking or stealing online identities to embarrass a Young person or cause trouble using their name
  • Sending explicit messages, also known as sexting
  • Pressuring children into sending sexual images or engaging in sexual conversations

Online grooming

Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.

Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know – for example a family member, friend or professional.

A child may be experiencing abuse online if they:

  • Spend lots, much more or much less time online, texting, gaming or using social media
  • Are withdrawn, upset or outraged after using the internet or texting
  • Are secretive about who they’re talking to and what they’re doing online or on their mobile phone
  • Have lots of new phone numbers, texts or e-mail addresses on their mobile phone, laptop or tablet

Child sexual abuse online

When sexual exploitation happens online, young people may be persuaded, or forced, to:

  • Send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
  • Take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone
  • Have sexual conversations by text or online

Abusers may threaten to send images, video or copies of conversations to the young person’s friends and family unless they take part in other sexual activity.

Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.


Physical abuse

A form of abuse which may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise cause physical harm to children.

Physical harm may also be when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of or deliberately induces illness in a child.

Common signs of physical abuse:


  • Commonly on the head but also on the ear or neck or soft areas – the abdomen, back and buttocks
  • Defensive wounds commonly on the forearm, upper arm, back of the leg, hands or feet
  • Clusters of bruises on the upper arm, outside of the thigh or on the body
  • Bruises with dots of blood under the skin
  • A bruised scalp and swollen eyes from hair being pulled violently
  • Bruises in the shape of a hand or object

Burns or scalds

  • Can be from hot liquids, hot objects, flames, chemicals or electricity
  • On the hands, back, shoulders or buttocks; scalds may be on lower limbs, both arms and/or both legs
  • A clear edge to the burn or scald
  • Sometimes in the shape or an implement for example, a circular cigarette burn
  • Multiple burns or scalds

Bite marks

  • Usually oval or circular in shape
  • Visible wounds, indentations or bruising from individual teeth

Fractures or broken bones

  • Fractures to the ribs or the leg bones in babies
  • Multiple fractures or breaks at different stages of healing


Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development.

Sign and symptoms of emotional abuse:

  • There often aren’t any obvious physical symptoms of emotional abuse or neglect but you may spot signs in a child’s actions or emotions.
  • Changes in emotions are a normal part of growing up, so it can be really difficult to tell if a child is being emotionally abused.

Babies and pre-school children who are being emotionally abused or neglected may:

  • Be overly-affectionate towards strangers or people they haven’t known for very long
  • Lack confidence or become wary or anxious
  • Not appear to have a close relationship with their parent, e.g. when being taken to or collected from nursery etc.
  • Be aggressive or nasty towards other children and animals

Older children may:

  • Use language, act in a way or know about things that you wouldn’t expect them to know for their age
  • Struggle to control strong emotions or have extreme outbursts
  • Seem isolated from their parents
  • Lack social skills or have few, if any, friends


Child Sexual Exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a type of sexual abuse in which children are sexually exploited for money, power or status.

Sexual exploitation can be very difficult to identify. Warning signs can easily be mistaken for ‘normal’ teenage behaviour.

Young people who are being sexually exploited may:

  • Go missing from home, care or education
  • Be involved in abusive relationships, intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations
  • Hang out with groups of older people, or antisocial groups, or with other vulnerable peers
  • Associate with other young people involved in sexual exploitation
  • Get involved in gangs, gang fights, gang membership
  • Have older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Spend time at places of concern, such as hotels or known brothels
  • Not know where they are, because they have been moved around the country
  • Be involved in petty crime such as shoplifting
  • Have unexplained physical injuries
  • Have a changed physical appearance, for example lost weight


Child Trafficking

Child trafficking and modern slavery are child abuse. Children are recruited, moved or transported and then exploited, forced to work or sold.

Children are trafficked for:

  • Child sexual exploitation
  • Benefit fraud
  • Forced marriage
  • Domestic servitude such as cleaning, childcare, cooking
  • Forced labour in factories or agriculture
  • Criminal activity such as pickpocketing, begging, transporting drugs, working on cannabis farms, selling pirated DVDs and bag theft

Many children are trafficked into the UK from abroad, but children can also be trafficked from one part of the UK to another.

Signs a child has been trafficked:

  • Spends a lot of time doing household chores
  • Rarely leaves their house, has no freedom of movement and no time for playing
  • Is orphaned or living apart from their family, often in unregulated private foster care
  • Lives in substandard accommodation
  • Isn’t sure which country, city or town they’re in
  • Is unable or reluctant to give details of accommodation or personal details
  • Might not be registered with a school or a GP practice
  • Has no documents or has falsified documents
  • Has no access to their parents or guardians
  • Is seen in inappropriate places such as brothels or factories
  • Possesses unaccounted for money or goods
  • Is permanently deprived of a large part of their earnings, required to earn a minimum amount of money every day or pay off an exorbitant debt
  • Has injuries from workplace accidents
  • Gives a prepared story which is very similar to stories given by other children


Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.

Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know – for example a family member, friend or professional.

If a child is being groomed they may:

  • Be very secretive, including about what they are doing online
  • Have older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Go to unusual places to meet friends
  • Have new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can’t or won’t explain
  • Have access to drugs and alcohol

The signs of grooming aren’t always obvious and groomers will often go to great lengths not to be identified.

In older children, signs of grooming can easily be mistaken for normal teenage behaviour, but you may notice unexplained changes in behaviour or personality, or inappropriate sexual behaviour for their age.


Harmful Sexual Abuse

Harmful sexual behaviour includes:

  • Using sexually explicit words and phrases
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Using sexual violence or threats
  • Full penetrative sex with other children or adults.

Children and young people who develop harmful sexual behaviour harm themselves and others.




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