What is child abuse?


What is child abuse?

Child abuse is any action by another person – adult or child – that causes significant harm to a child. It can be physical, sexual or emotional, but can just as often be about a lack of love, care and attention. We know that neglect, whatever form it takes, can be just as damaging to a child as physical abuse.
An abused child will often experience more than one type of abuse, as well as other difficulties in their lives. It often happens over a period of time, rather than being a one-off event. And it can increasingly happen online.
We estimate that over half a million children are abused in the UK each year.
Physical abuse
Physical abuse occurs when a child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering, non-accidental physical trauma or injury. Physical abuse can include:
• hitting
• shaking
• throwing
• burning
• biting
• poisoning.
Physical abuse does not always leave visible marks or injuries. It is not how bad the mark or injury is, but rather the act itself that causes injury or trauma to the child.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when an adult, stronger child or adolescent uses their power or authority to involve a child in sexual activity.
Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional and can include:
• kissing or holding a child in a sexual manner
• exposing a sexual body part to a child
• having sexual relations with a child under 16 years of age
• talking in a sexually explicit way that is not age or developmentally appropriate
• making obscene phone calls or remarks to a child
• sending obscene mobile text messages or emails to a child
• fondling a child in a sexual manner
• persistently intruding on a child’s privacy
• penetrating the child’s vagina or anus by penis, finger or any other object
• oral sex
• rape
• incest
• showing pornographic films, magazines or photographs to a child
• having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner
• forcing a child to watch a sexual act
• child prostitution.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a child’s social, emotional, cognitive or intellectual development is impaired or threatened. It can include emotional deprivation due to persistent:
• hostility
• teasing/bullying
• yelling
• criticism
• exposure of a child to domestic and family violence.


Neglect occurs when a child’s basic necessities of life are not met, and their health and development are affected. Basic needs include:
• food
• housing
• health care
• adequate clothing
• personal hygiene
• hygienic living conditions
• timely provision of medical treatment
• adequate supervision.

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.

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.

Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse. Children in exploitative situations and relationships receive something such as gifts, money or affection as a result of performing sexual activities or others performing sexual activities on them.
Children or young people may be tricked into believing they’re in a loving, consensual relationship. They might be invited to parties and given drugs and alcohol. They may also be groomed and exploited online.
Some children and young people are trafficked into or within the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation can also happen to young people in gangs.

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It’s also known as female circumcision or cutting.
Religious, social or cultural reasons are sometimes given for FGM. However, FGM is child abuse. It’s dangerous and a criminal offence.
There are no medical reasons to carry out FGM. It doesn’t enhance fertility and it doesn’t make childbirth safer. It is used to control female sexuality and can cause severe and long-lasting damage to physical and emotional health.

Bullying and cyberbullying

Bullying is behaviour that hurts someone else – such as name calling, hitting, pushing, spreading rumours, threatening or undermining someone.
It can happen anywhere – at school, at home or online. It’s usually repeated over a long period of time and can hurt a child both physically and emotionally.
Bullying that happens online, using social networks, games and mobile phones, is often called cyberbullying. A child can feel like there’s no escape because it can happen wherever they are, at any time of day or night.

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.


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.
Groomers may be male or female. They could be any age.
Many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed or that what has happened is abuse.
Harmful sexual behaviour
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.

Age differences and harmful sexual behaviour

Sexual behaviour between children is also considered harmful if one of the children is much older – particularly if there is more than two years’ difference in age or if one of the children is pre-pubescent and the other isn’t (Davies, 2012).

hhHowever, a younger child can abuse an older child, particularly if they have power over them – for example, if the older child is disabled (Rich, 2011).
If you’re not sure whether a sexual behaviour is harmful find out about the signs, symptoms and effects of harmful sexual behaviour.


It’s not always easy to recognize when a child has been abused. Children who are abused are often afraid to complain because they are fearful that they will be blamed or that no one will believe them. Additionally, the person who abused them may be someone they love very much and want to protect. Parents are often unable to recognize symptoms of abuse because they may not want to face this reality.

If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, the child should be examined as soon as possible by a trained health care professional; it can’t be stressed enough that an abused child needs immediate access to special support and treatment. A doctor’s exam should not be delayed for any reason. Many signs of injury related to sexual abuse are temporary.

Ideally, the exam should occur within 72 hours of the event or discovery. A complete physical exam must always be performed so that the examiner can look for any signs of physical or sexual abuse. These two forms of abuse may coexist. The longer the abuse continues, the less likely the child will make a full recovery.
Watch out for unexplained changes in your child’s body or behavior. Conduct a formal examination only if you have reason to suspect your child has been abused. Otherwise, the child may become fearful. Be alert to any of the following changes:

Signs of Physical Abuse: Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained.

Signs of Sexual Abuse: Fearful behavior (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempts to run away); abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease; extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child’s age.

Signs of Emotional Abuse: Sudden change in self-confidence; headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause; abnormal fears, increased nightmares or attempts to run away
Signs of Emotional Neglect: Failure to gain weight (especially in infants), desperately affectionate behavior, voracious appetite and stealing food.

Risk Factors

A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of child maltreatment and abuse. Although children are not responsible for the harm inflicted upon them, certain individual characteristics have been found to increase their risk of being maltreated. Risk factors are contributing factors—not direct causes.

Examples of risk factors:

• Disabilities or mental retardation in children that may increase caregiver burden
• Social isolation of families
• Parents’ lack of understanding of children’s needs and child development
• Parents’ history of domestic abuse
• Poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantages, such as unemployment
• Family disorganization, dissolution, and violence, including intimate partner violence
• Lack of family cohesion
• Substance abuse in the family
• Young, single nonbiological parents
• Poor parent-child relationships and negative interactions
• Parental thoughts and emotions supporting maltreatment behaviors
• Parental stress and distress, including depression or other mental health conditions
• Community violence


If you suspect a child has been abused, contact a pediatrician or a local child protective agency for help. Physicians are legally obligated to report all suspected cases of abuse or neglect to authorities. They can also recommend a therapist and provide the necessary information for investigators. Doctors may also testify in court to obtain legal protection for the child or to help criminally prosecute an individual suspected of engaging in child sexual abuse.

Whatever the nature of the abuse, steps should be taken immediately to report the abuse and obtain help. Delaying a report decreases the child’s chances for full recovery.

If he or she has been abused, your child will benefit from the services of a qualified mental health professional. You and other members of the family may be advised to seek counseling so that you’ll be able to provide the support and comfort your child needs. If someone in your family is responsible for the abuse, a mental health professional may be able to treat that person successfully, as well.

If your child has been abused, you may be the only person who can help him or her. Do not delay reporting your suspicions of abuse. Denying the problem will only worsen the situation; allowing the abuse to continue decreases the child’s chance for full recovery. In any case of child abuse, the safety of the abused youngster is of primary concern. He or she needs to be in a safe environment free from the potential for continuing abuse.
In most cases, children who are abused or neglected suffer greater emotional than physical damage. A child who has been abused or otherwise severely mistreated may become depressed or develop suicidal, withdrawn, or violent behavior.

An older child may use drugs or alcohol, try to run away, or abuse others. The younger the child is and the closer the child’s relationship to the abuser, the more serious the emotional damage will be. As adults, they may develop marital and sexual difficulties, depression or suicidal behavior. With early intervention and treatment, these outcomes may be avoided.

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