How to spot child abuse

Would you know how to spot child abuse?

Little girl with ponytail, side view with hand over her ear. Spot the signs of Child Abuse
Spot the signs of Child Abuse

This is the third in a series of Let’s talk about Abuse. Today we’re going to look at Child Abuse but before we start:

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, this article might mention trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering.

First, let’s take a look at the following Child Abuse statistics for year ending March 2019 from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 2019. If you’re not too interested in statistics, just scroll down the page.

  • The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that one in five adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced at least one form of child abuse, whether emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence or abuse, before the age of 16 years (8.5 million people).
  • Many cases of child abuse remain hidden; around one in seven adults who called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood’s (NAPAC’s) helpline in the latest year had not told anyone about their abuse before.
  • In the year ending March 2019, Childline delivered 19,847 counselling sessions to children in the UK where abuse was the primary concern; around 1 in 20 of the sessions resulted in a referral to external agencies. So yes, let’s talk Child Abuse.

What is the UN convention on the rights of the child?

Lit up photo young child holding up broken chains
All children have the right to be treated
with dignity and fairness……

In 1989, governments across the world adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), recognising that all children have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness, to be protected, to develop to their full potential and to

Their rights, according to UNCRC, include that: Governments must do all they can to make sure every child can enjoy their rights; to life, to adequate standard of living and non-discrimination, from child mortality to combating disease and malnutrition, preventing violence and injury, ensuring rehabilitation and support for children with disabilities, or abolishing traditional practices that harm children such as early enforced marriage and female genital mutilation.

So, what is Child Abuse?

Head of baby lying on his back, with black eyes and blooding dripping from his nose
Shocking — One month old baby

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes child abuse as a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there’s an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress.

Who are the abusers

Sometimes people who abuse children were themselves abused as children. A cycle of abuse might be difficult to break if it’s not dealt with effectively. It can be passed down through generations within a family.

Child abusers come from all walks of life and abuse could happen anywhere i.e. in the home, at school, at the local swimming pool or park. Child abusers can be anyone from parents, caregiver, close family members, family friends, teachers and/or coaches. In fact, an abuser could be anyone who has access to a child — whether through action or failing to act.

People who’ve experienced abandonment, witnessed family violence or experienced various forms of abuse during childhood are at greater risk of poor mental health, behavioural and interpersonal skills in later life.

Types of abuse

Child abuse is behaviour toward a child that is outside the ‘normal societal behaviours’. Four types of abuse are generally recognized:

Girl with long blond hair wearing blue denim jacket and jeans. Sitting, leaning against a wall and covering her face
Emotional abuse harms a child’s
mental and social development
  • Emotional abuse includes any act that results in the child suffering significant emotional deprivation or trauma. Emotional abuse harms a child’s mental and social development, and over time, can cause severe emotional harm.

Shouting at a child or at other parent in front of them is child abuse. Being threatening towards a child, saying things like “If you don’t behave, I’ll cut your rabbit in half”, or “If your gonna sulk I’ll smash up that bloody laptop” is child abuse.

Putting a child down or criticising them, particularly in front of people, shaming or making the child feel guilty is abuse. Letting children hear adult themed conversations, talking about divorce or separation or putting the other partner down in front of a child is also abuse.

Psychological abuse is often the hardest form of abuse to identify. However, if a child is abused in another way i,e, physically or sexually, psychological abuse might not be far behind.

‘My greatest wish is that my kids always know how much I love them, and that they walk through the rest of their life knowing I’ll always be there for them anyway I can.’


Signs a child might be emotionally abused might include:

  1. Withdrawal from friends and activities they used to enjoy
  2. Sudden loss of self-confidence, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD or unusual fears
  3. Looking sad and lonely, different from how they’ve been in the past
  4. Changes in behavior — such as anger, aggression, hostility or hyperactivity and being spiteful, bullying others such as younger siblings, school friends and even parents
  5. Rebellious or defiant behavior, deliberately breaking all the normal family or school rules
  6. An apparent lack of supervision, possibly always out on the streets
  7. Running away
  8. Frequent absences from school or sudden changes in school performance
  9. Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn’t want to go home
  10. Self-harm; pulling out their hair, cutting or scratching self, or suicide attempts
Young boy wearing blue jeans and white t-shirt. Sitting on the floor with his hand up defending himself as females hand that look like they're about to hit or slap
Young boy looks like mum’s angry,
– Image Shutterstock/Speedkingz
  • Physical abuse is when a parent, family friend, teacher or caregiver purposely causes physical injury to a child. There’s lots of signs of physical abuse, some of which are listed here:
  1. Bruises, black eyes, blisters, hair pulling, cuts and cigarette burns, scars or scratches
  2. Severe visible injuries like burns or welts, possibly hit with a belt or stick
  3. Broken arms, legs or hands, dislocated joints
  4. Internal injuries like stomach; perhaps being kicked and punched or brain damage
  5. Lifelong injury as in brain injury, death

Be aware if a child doesn’t want to leave, say a friend’s birthday party, to go home, or they’re afraid of adults, including other parents

ID 9388190 © Monkey Business Images |
  • Neglect includes any serious omission or act that constitutes a failure to provide the essential conditions for the healthy emotional and physical development of a child (within the bounds of cultural tradition). Some examples are:
  1. Leaving a child alone without appropriate supervision i.e. leaving a baby with a 6/7 year old sibling while parent goes off to a bar or party
  2. Not receiving comfort, affection, and appropriate stimulation from caregivers; no smiles, hugs or appropriate physical bonding. No emotional support such as ignoring their cries, their feelings or other emotional needs
  3. Not getting medical help when required or quite the opposite, Munchausen syndrome by proxy (a mental health problem where a caregiver makes up or causes an illness or injury in a child
  4. Infection because of lack of medication or poor hygiene which might result in scabies, head lice, diarrhea
  5. Not enrolling a child at school or not making sure a child attends school

Signs of neglect in children would include things like:

Whiteboard with someone writing in large blue letters - child neglect
  • Nasty body odour, matted hair, dirty skin and/or nails
  • A child being ill-kempt, extremely dirty clothing or wearing clothing that’s way too small or too big
  • Untreated sores, scabs or severe nappy rash
  • If a baby isn’t meeting appropriate physical and developmental milestones without an underlying medical reasons
  • Being hungry and stealing food or what might appear as gluttony – eating really quickly and furtively
  • A child is always tired, late for school or not attending school
  • Feeling bad about themselves, not making friends
  • Being involved in serious accidents like falling down stairs, constantly bruised or broken bones

I have consciously left out Childhood Sexual Abuse in this article, as that’s a whole other post.

Knowing how to help a child who is being abused and how to respond if you think a child is suffering is very complex. So too is understanding why most children don’t disclose, but I’ll try to cover that in my next post childhood sexual abuse. Listed here are support services you might want to contact for advice and support if you know of a child being abused:

  • NAPAC because the damage caused by child abuse doesn’t always end in childhood. NAPAC offer support to adult survivors and training for those who support them. Call 0808 801 0331
  • NSPCC 0808 800 5000 to report concerns about a child
  • Childline call 0800 1111 for advice and support

Though it’s crucial to raise awareness of child abuse, researching and writing this article brought up many old thoughts and feelings. It’s been depressing at times, anxiety provoking, soul-destroying and shocking. I’m guessing that many of you will have had similar anxieties reading it. If so, I’m sorry for what you may have gone through and, please take a few moments to self-soothe and to take care of yourself.

Large red question mark with white man character leaning against it

I hope you’ve found this post useful in some way. Do you think I’ve covered most angles, or do you need more? Would you ever report to the authorities if you saw signs of child abuse? I’m really interested to hear your opinions and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.

You might be interested in the two other posts in this series, Let’s talk about Domestic Violence here or Let’s talk about the various forms of abuse here.

One last thought: if you’re having relationship problems, please – tell a friend, speak to your GP or find a therapist, but please don’t take it out on the children.


Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

53 thoughts on “How to spot child abuse”

  1. Yes, your post covers it and I have had emotional abuse, mostly from my dad. This post isn’t triggering for me in what I recognise that happened to me now. But it would have been some years ago.

    Counselling has helped me with emotions and feelings I needed to release, as well as my blog, which the early years of my blog does cover what happened to me as a child and sharing my counselling sessions as I went through talking about it. Even discovering something I thought I wasn’t carrying and so that was something else that counselling and in my own time to process, then let go, before saying goodbye again, which was my first pet dog.

    1. Sorry to hear you had to go through this too Liz. Gee Whizz, what is it with some parents? Some people should neverf be able to have children. Glad counselling helped you 🙂 xx

      1. Over here in the Uk there is no licence for having a dog. But many years ago, apparently they used to be, because I remember my mum asking at the Post Office when we first had our dog for a licence and thats when the person serving her said no need for one now. There is no dog licence.

        My dad was good with other people’s kids, than his own, as you know with me blogging about this.

      2. The only license that you have to have is one I think for those dogs under dangerous dogs act, that have to be muzzled. But I am not really sure. But every other dog breed, no, you don’t need one, as my mum learnt all those years ago. I couldn’t say when they stopped.

      3. Are you sure? As I was 11 years old then. My first dog, I was only 9 years old when the chap behind the Post Office counter said you don’t need one.

      4. I just looked it up and see your right.
        I’m sure I was 9. If not, I was 10 when I had my first dog.

      5. Well my parents were going to be law abiding and get the dog license, but were told it stopped. From reading many people ignored and didn’t get one. I think they had a dog too. So they thought why bother when no one else did and so tell us it stopped.

  2. This is a good article Caz x

    People who come into the home, do not recognise abuse often unless they spend quite a bit of time with the children. And even then the dynamics within a household are often complex.

    People do not wish to meddle.

    A child quickly learns to pretend things are ok, and not cause any alarm or suspicion for fears of punishment. Even if they feel things are not right.

    So many people can come to the house… family, friends, and not recognise anything. In fact go away with quite the opposite impression.

    Some of the signs can be very subtle.
    Like: the child not wanting to go home after being at a friends house… I often cried and feared going back home. But tried to hide it as much as I could.

    I ran away often, but people just presumed I was disobedient.

    People do not like to think about abuse being done, and therefore attach other reasons why the child would behave the way they are.

    Perhaps they have a nervous disposition
    Perhaps they are clumsy
    Perhaps they tell lies and are naughty

    I was often late for school, and scared to go but headteacher asked me up to his office one day and asked if I was being bullied at school. Then he asked if everything was ok at home.
    I just said: “everything is fine”

    Thing is, if they are clever like my dad was, and a charmer, they can tell someone what they want to hear and make the person feel completely at ease, so there is no concern or alarm.

    If anything was said, he would put the blame on me, and cause doubts. Or he would say: “yeah, you know how Michelle is” and making me out to be the crazy, disillusioned one”

    Again, all tactics to ward off any suspicion.

    It was only til later, when I got older, and started confronting him more, and the police were regularly involved, and often our neighbours would hear me screaming and crying in the garden from his punishments, that he was more found out, which he did not like.

    Abusers like to keep a fiscard up.

    And this is why many slip through the system.

    Again, many of these…just a couple

    1. Aawww, Michelle, it’s truly awful. And like you said, how they can charm anyone and blame it on the child. Aaarrgghhh!. At certain times, I’d stay out, sneak out every night after tea and stay out til bedtime just to keep away from someone. You wonder why people don’t see the difficult behaviours in a child. Something must be happening in their lives to change their behaviour, And now we’re all left damaged. The figures above show us just how many kids were abused!! The next bit I am not looking forward to is sexual abuse but I suppose I have to get it out on papar xx Hope you are keeping well and safe Michelle xx

      1. Do you know Caz there are so many things I am only now picking up or realising exactly what was going on, and why. Not only in my child/adolescent hood but also from the things I noticed or was told about my mother. It truly is staggering!!! I am only realising or putting pieces together now.
        For instance, my father used to ask my mum to dress up in like a school type outfit, even though she was in her 20’s, and then have all these papers on the bed, and then he would take a photos, I actually have the photo. And never thought anything off it, as that was just my father. He did similar things with me. It was like he told you which way to sit, and how to be, almost set up this whole type of stage.
        I never thought anything of it until recently. He even managed to do it with my friends and sister if she came over. I still don’t really know what it all means. But I am thinking now that maybe it wasn’t just innocent. I am caught between just letting it all go and forgetting about it, but also like a detective wondering what it all meant and why.
        The sexual abuse, yes I can imagine is very difficult. I don’t like to go there.
        I have significant psychological damage there. Again, there is much I just don’t know.
        I have been having suicidal ideation lots. Wanting to give up, and wanting to end my life.
        But that’s just normal with me. Haha! Xxx take care Caz xxx

      2. Aaaww, it’s just awful and while you say it’s normal for you to have suicidal ideation and you laugh, I’m getting to understand you a bit more. You really are in pain. Listen if you ever want to contact me privately, we can sort out an email thingy? I get that you wonder whether to let it all go and forgetting and you must do what you feel is necessary to get through the hurt Sweetheart. You take care and I’m here if you need. Caz xx

      3. I am always in pain. It just depends on the severity of it. I’m not the only one. Everyone deals with something. I’m grateful for the support I have…and could be considered lucky in comparison with others I guess.
        I laugh because it’s just easier.
        And I just make light of a dark situation. It’s not all doom and gloom, and I cope. So that’s the main thing.
        I’ve given you my email address, but I appreciate you are busy, and have a life, so really do not expect anything of you.
        I appreciate and am grateful for your kind words and validation though. Xxx

      4. I’m sorry you not been well and and I hope you feel better soon, please forgive me, as I go to extremes, and change. I have done this again due to triggers. I do this when I feel either external or internal fear/anxiety…I don’t even understand myself why I do what I do, but I’m aware of what I am doing…
        I’ve changed my name and pic again…
        I have this thing where I am constantly trying to delete and erase everything, and I don’t know why.
        It’s crazy….

      5. I really am going to have to be more careful and use like codes for stuff or something just in case AF (abusive father) is out there. I shouldn’t and can’t use any pics of myself anywhere either. As he may well have more time on his hands, and that is never a good thing when it comes to AF. I am trying not to say too much. For my AM (alcoholic mother) and AF, they were the typical borderline/narcissist couple, and there was a power dynamic at play constantly. My email address is:

      6. Um, I cannot explain this, but I just cannot trust.

        I keep commenting on Ashley’s blog and your blog, and spewing bits of my history and life out.
        Then I feel bad for doing so, as if I’m making it all about me.
        It’s not about me. I do not want people’s pity.
        The past is the past and I if I need to write anything about it, it will be privately.
        I get to where I feel like I’m over sharing, and then I go to the other extreme to compensate, usually over compensating.
        But it’s about protecting me, and not bring any attention to me. I do not want any attention.
        Any social media at all even this little amount is not good and can be a trigger for me.

        So as much as I like you and Ashley, and you are lovely people, I will no longer comment on your blogs, so that it stops me from over sharing, and I bring absolutely no attention to me, as I hate it.

        I will be absolutely fine. Nothing to worry about.
        Thank you for all your help and support and kindness. Take care and be well xx

      7. Hey Michelle, nobody thinks it’s all about you – and even if someone does, who cares eh? And I certainly don’t feel pity towards you and I’m sure others don’t either.

        But hey, each to their own thoughts eh? But don’t internalise it my lovely, write what you want when you want, that’s what it’s all about in blogging world. And you’re safe in here – everyone in the mental health sphere of blogging looks out for each other. And of course, I don’t want anything to trigger you or anyone.
        Awww, that’s a shanme, I’ve just read the last bits 🙁 You’ll be sadly missed as your thoughts and opinions are important too. You know where we are anytime Michelle, Caz xxx You stay safe and well x

      8. My thoughts/opinions are not important, to anyone, that’s just it. I am noone. But we all like to say so to make that person feel good I guess.

        Everyone in this world wants to feel known, appreciated, approved of and liked, admired, even important.
        I do not want any of these things.

        I actually want the complete opposite, to dissappear….not be known, and be forgotten.

        Stay well and all the best xxx

      9. Hey Michelle, the thing is, and I know how difficult it is to trust, I wouldn’t say it just to make you feel better. Just know that some of us care – really care x

    1. Aaaww, thank you so much Christina. I really appreciate it and am so looking forward to participating. Just recovering from a physical setback, on the mend tho so I will catch up you you again soon. Caz x

  3. I never had child abuse myself, (I have had domestic violence but not child abuse)

    I take classes on the subject of child abuse because I work at a school (normally 😒) … I have to be able to recognize behaviors, pick up on words, watch for weird bruises or whatever the case is. We are required by law immediately to take action and report that should we suspect any kind of child abuse. You have to be very aware to pick up on it, but you can if you know what you looking for.

    Love how you bring attention to some sensitive subjects… sometimes they are hard to handle or face – is VERY good to speak of though – awareness is good and very important.

  4. Child abuse bites! Not getting into the physical abuse I suffered, there was emotional abuse as well, and it takes many forms. For example, my mom would NEVER say she didn’t love me, and she’d NEVER say that she preferred one child to another, etc. But, here’s what she would say, when I was eight years old: “You’re manipulative and sadistic. You enjoy upsetting me. You’re playing the ‘let’s upset Mommy today’ game and winning.” That was pretty bad. She’d be crying her eyes out and telling me that I was making her act that way and feel that way. Bad, bad mother. Great post!! Indeed, quite grim material, but people must know what to look for!!

    1. Wow, that’s awful Meg, particularly making you feel like you were bad for upsetting mummy. I’d never do that to a kid and I’m glad I’d read self-help books etc so I knew what not say etc. Altho’ I knew what was right and wrong – it was a different thing way back then – we all got clumped or hit round the head with whatever came to hand lol. I used to just laugh and it made my mum laugh so I didn’t have it so bad. And I don’t blame my mum in any way, she’s my here – she brought up 4 young kids alone – I hate my dad for abandoning us. Cos, if he’s been around, our ‘uncles’ who were family friends and ought to be trusted, wouldn’t dare do what they did to us as kids! xx

  5. It’s so sobering to see what percentage of the population typically has experienced child abuse. I’ve read many stories that gave me the impression the number was far too high, but it gives me no pleasure to see that confirmed.

  6. Domestic abuse is horrible too tho’ and I don’t think parents should be screaming and yelling or hitting so that children can hear them! I’m glad that the law insists that people take action and quickly before any more damage is done. Well done to you. Caz x

  7. Caz you did such an amazing job with this one as well. You talk about it in such a gentle, understanding way and though I can’t speak for all, your sensitivity is truly appreciated. Thank you so much for all you put into a hard post like the ones you’ve been covering. I still have to go back and read a bit because it’s hard and full of triggers. Have a wonderful day 🙂

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