Child Protection: How To Recognise The Signs Of Child Abuse

Children are the embodiment of innocence. They are the future. So, they should have the opportunity to grow and excel to their fullest potential. Moreover, it is a serious human right and social issue. It is our solemn duty to protect those pure souls from any kind of harm. Let’s learn about how to recognise signs of child abuse to provide better child protection. 

You can find all the required information regarding child protection. That will help to be aware of child abuse and provide child protection. Starting from what is abuse, the aftermaths of child abuse and how to recognise the signs. The more you know about child maltreatment, the better you will be at recognising it. And therefore, it will be easier to protect the child from abuse.

In this blog

What is child abuse?

Child abuse refers to all kinds of physical, sexual, emotional maltreatment along with neglect. In short, child abuse is any type of maltreatment of a child. And that’s why it is also known as child maltreatment. 

Child abuse can occur in many settings. Such as in a family or an institution or a community setting. It can even take place online. Moreover, technology can also facilitate offline abuse. 

Different forms of child abuse

Child abuse can take many forms. Most often children suffer from more than one type of abuse. According to a survey by The Office of National Statistics, 44% of the victims experienced more than one type of abuse. For instance, physical or sexual abuse is often followed by emotional abuse as well. Given below are four main kinds of abuse that require child protection.

1. Physical abuse

It refers to the intentional use of physical force against a child. Which endangers the child’s health, development, dignity and survival. Physical abuse includes hitting, beating, kicking, biting, burning, strangling, poisoning, suffocating etc. 

In many countries, some forms of physical abuse are normal, in the name of discipline. Sometimes physical abuse can be life-threatening.

2. Sexual abuse

WHO defines sexual abuse as the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she – 

  • does not fully comprehend
  • is unable to give informed consent to;
  • for which the child is not prepared;
  • and anything else that violates the laws or social taboos of society.

To put it simply, sexual abuse means any kind of sexual activity with a child. Such as rape, groping, rubbing, kissing, exposure to child pornography and others. Sexual abuse can occur via the internet as well. Children can be sexually abused by both males and females.  It can be done by an adult or other children.

3. Emotional abuse

Emotional child abuse is also called psychological abuse. It includes a pattern of verbal and non-verbal behaviours that harms the child. It is harmful to a child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being. Emotional abuse includes a verbal and emotional assault. They constantly have to deal with humiliation, threats and criticism. In this form of abuse, children are often isolated, ignored or made feel rejected by their abuser. 

 According to WHO this type of abuse includes the following –

  • Restriction of movement
  • Belittling
  • Blaming
  • Threatening
  • Frightening
  • Discriminating
  • Other non-physical forms of rejection
  • Hostile treatment

Emotionally abused children are not given an appropriate and supportive environment for development. This type of abuse has a high probability of harming the child’s physical or mental health. It may also restrict a child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

4. Neglect

This is the most common form of child abuse. Child neglect is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs. This includes physical, emotional, medical and educational needs. A child going through neglect may not get the necessities. For instance, food, shelter, affection, supervision and education.

Neglect is not necessarily a result of the poor financial condition of parents. Because many well-off parents also neglect their children.

This is the most common form of child abuse. Child neglect is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs. This includes physical, emotional, medical and educational needs. A child going through neglect may not get the necessities. For instance, food, shelter, affection, supervision and education.

Risk factors of child abuse

Perpetrators of child abuse

Perpetrators of child abuse are the ones abusing children in any form like maltreating. WHO has recognised the following as the common perpetrators of child abuse –

  • Parents and other family members
  • Caregiver
  • Friend
  • Acquaintance
  • Stranger
  • People in authority – such as teacher, police officer, clergy etc
  • Employer or colleagues of parents and guardians
  • Health care worker
  • Other children

In other words, a child abuser can be anyone around us, regardless of relationship. Undeniably, this makes ensuring child protection more complex. However, there is help available. You can educate yourself and make people around you more aware.

Children at high risk of abuse

Before learning about children who are at high risk of abuse, it is important to remember that it is never the child’s fault. Children are not to blame for other people’s perpetration.

WHO says the following characteristics increase the likelihood of needing child protection –

  • Aged under four years or an adolescent
  • Unwanted by parents
  • Failing to fulfil the expectations of parents
  • Having special needs
  • Crying persistently
  • Having abnormal bodily features
  • Having any kind of disability or disorder
  • Identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender

No matter how well a perpetrator justifies their behaviour, it’s not okay. The child is never to blame for the actions of their abuser. If you want to learn more about taking better care of children take a look at our courses like Child Care and Child Protection and Child Psychology and Cognitive Development.

Other risk factors of child abuse

Risk factor refers to a high chance of child abuse. Some risk factors not mentioned in children at high risk of abuse are the following-

History of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Parents with a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are more likely to repeat similar behaviour with their own children. Because abuse is often a learned behaviour.  A person’s early experiences can have a big impact on their future. As shown in the ACE pyramid given below


Lack of parenting competencies

Being a parent is a full-time job even for experienced, mature parents. Younger parents, and possibly less prepared to become parents need additional support. They don’t have enough knowledge to help them guide throughout this journey. They need help to build healthy and nurturing relationships with their children. Otherwise, they might feel overwhelmed and end up hurting their child.

Parental stress takes a huge toll on the parent’s ability to care for the child. The following factors contribute a lot towards the parents stress and burnout –

  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Inexperience
  • Lack of a support system
  • Lack of knowledge about child development
  • Single parenthood
  • Having more than one dependent children

Parents or someone taking care of children can take the following courses to provide better care and safeguard children.

Substance abuse

Parents who struggle with addiction are at high risk of abuse. Because they are exposing their children to an unsafe environment. They are less likely to provide for their children’s safety and other needs.

Financial instability

Parents who are under financial insecurity, are unable to provide for their children. Times of uncertainty or difficulty can lead to higher risk. For example, adults who are unable to cope with stress may take it out on their children or partner. They might become violent and start yelling, screaming or even end up hitting someone. 

Parents with a history of violence may risk exposing their children to domestic abuse. Which, consequently, harm their child’s social and emotional development.

Why is child protection needed?

If you think child abuse is a myth, or it isn’t that serious, take look at the stats by WHO. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheets –

  • Almost 3 in 4 children regularly suffer from violence at the hands of their parents or caregivers. Which is nearly 300 million children, aged between 2 and 4 years.
  • 1 in 5 women reports having been sexually abused as a child aged between 0 and 17 years. While the same ratio for men is 1 in 13.
  • About 120 million girls under 20 years old have suffered some form of forced sexual interaction.

These numbers show a very tragic worldwide child abuse scenario. The Office of national statistics published the following statistics on commonly experienced child abuse in England and Wales.


To clarify, any abuse (20.67%) in the graph includes they endured emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. Or they saw domestic violence or abuse at home. Even though these percentages are not that high. When compared to other countries, it’s still alarming. A child abused, is abused too much. Therefore, child protection is a must in today’s world to secure our future generation. 

The below figure shows the gender-wise percentage distribution of different forms of child abuse. As it shows in most forms of abuse, females are notably more abused compared to male. The only significant difference is in sexual abuse. Women are at 11.51 percent, while men are only 3.49 percent. This is another proof of the statement that most perpetrators are male. 


What are the consequences of child abuse?

Child abuse has some serious life-long consequences. Many suffer from impaired mental and physical issues for years. While some never really recover. Childhood abuse can be linked to later physical, psychological, and behavioural outcomes as well. Some of these outcomes are related to each other. Child abuse could later lead to high-risk behaviours.  The real magnitude of child abuse can only be understood by someone who has been through it. Nonetheless, we have compiled some of the most common aftermaths of child abuse. 

1. Physical health consequences

Some physical effects of child abuse may be visible immediately. While others take years to show symptoms. There is a direct link between physical abuse and physical health. For example, a head injury due to physical abuse can cause brain damage. Some proven physical health outcomes found over the years are –

  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Vision problems
  • Functional limitations
  • Heart attack
  • Arthritis
  • Back problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Brain damage
  • Migraine headaches
  • Cancer
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

Child abuse and neglect hinder brain development. But studies show that children’s brain development can be improved. Though it will need appropriate interventions.  

For example, physically abused children have a higher risk of diabetes and malnutrition.Study shows that children who experience sexual abuse are more likely to contract hepatitis C and HIV. Survivors of child abuse are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours like smoking, alcohol abuse, unsafe sex etc.

2. Psychological consequences

Child maltreatment can cause a lot of psychological problems. It can cause victims to feel isolated, fearful, and distrusting. And these can translate into lifelong psychological consequences. It causes educational difficulties, low self-esteem, trouble forming and maintaining relationships. Researchers have identified links between child maltreatment and the following psychological issues.

Reduced functioning and cognitive skills – A child’s brain development is disrupted as a result of maltreatment. It can cause damage to the brain’s functions. Like working memory, self-control, and cognitive flexibility. Without cognitive flexibility, a person loses the ability to look at situations from different perspectives. Abused children are also at risk for other problems. Like, difficulties in learning and paying attention.

Poor mental and emotional health – Experiencing childhood abuse is a risk factor for the following. Usually, these remain throughout their adulthood as well: Depression, Anxiety and Other psychiatric disorders.

Studies have found that adults with a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences have a higher chance of suicide attempts. More so than those who did not. Depression is one of the most commonly occurring aftermaths of past abuse. Adults who have experienced child abuse are two and a half times more likely to have severe depression.

Attachment and social difficulties – Children who experienced abuse and had poor early caregiving can develop attachment disorders. These can negatively affect a child’s ability to form any kind of positive relationships later in life. Like peer, social, and romantic relationships. Additionally, they are more likely to develop antisocial traits as they grow older. Consequently, they can lead to criminal behaviour later on. 

Post-traumatic stress – People with a past of child abuse are six times more likely to have a post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is defined by symptoms such as:

* Re-experiencing of the traumatic events linked to the abuse repeatedly

* Avoiding people, places, and events related to their mistreatment

* Feeling fear, anger, guilt, shame

* Startling pretty easily

* Displaying hypervigilance, irritability and other changes in mood

Children with PTSD often lead to depression, substance uses and defiant behaviours. They might exhibit suicidal behaviour as well. These symptoms may remain in adulthood too. Thus, affecting their ability to succeed in life, and nurture relationships.

3. Behavioural consequences

Victims of child maltreatment often exhibit behavioural difficulties. They continue even after the maltreatment ends. The following are examples of how maltreatment can affect individuals’ behaviours later in life.

 Unhealthy sexual practices – Abused children are likely to engage in high-risk sexual activities as they get older. These practices may appear as they reach adolescence or adulthood.

* Higher number of sexual partners

* Early initiation of sexual behaviour

* Transactional sex. For example,  sex exchanged for money, gifts, or any other material support

* Increased chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease

Their unhealthy sexual life often results in an unwanted pregnancy. Which in turn continues this cycle of abuse or lead to abortion. 

Drug and alcohol abuse – Abused children are at a significantly higher risk of substance use disorders. Child abuse repeats itself through increased alcohol and drug abuse in one generation after another. 

Future perpetration of maltreatment – A person abused as a child is more likely to abuse others as an adult. That way abuse is passed down from one generation to the next. It is therefore critical to break this heinous cycle. 

According to an article by Cambridge University Press, the overall rate of having been a victim is 35% for perpetrators. Among them, a high percentage of male were abused in childhood by a female relative. Later on they became perpetrators. So having been a victim is a strong predictor of becoming a perpetrator. Though not everyone agrees with this school of thought. Some believe quite the opposite. If a person who has suffered child abuse becomes resentful and seeks revenge, then they have a probability of going down this path. 

Re-victimisation – Office for National Statistics says around half of the adults (52%) who experienced abuse before the age of 16 years also experienced domestic abuse later in life. The toll physical abuse takes on a person is literally unthinkable. Child abuse makes a person lose their self-esteem and confidence. In some cases, they believe that they deserve more abuse because of their past. As if they don’t feel deserving of love and affection.

Research shows that 72% of women who experienced abuse as a child also experienced violence in adulthood. On the other hand, 43% of women did not experience childhood abuse but suffered in adulthood. To clarify, it was either physical or sexual abuse.

4. Societal consequences

The cost of child abuse falls in the hands of society also. The societal cost of child abuse is both direct and indirect. The price society pays for child maltreatment is difficult to calculate. While some costs are directly related to abuse, such as hospital costs. Other indirect costs are less directly tied to the incident of abuse. For example,  include poor academic performance, criminal activities, and lifelong mental health issues. Both of these have a significant impact on our society and economy as a whole.

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How to recognise signs of child abuse?

To provide child protection, it is necessary to recognise the signs of child abuse. If you see any of these signs in a child, you should take the necessary steps to protect the child. Signs of child abuse vary depending on the type of abuse. Also, some signs are hard to detect. But if a child shares stories of abuse, it is definitely a cry for help.


1. Signs of physical abuse

Not all signs of physical abuse are visible. Some may not even be noticeable unless they are severe. Like internal injuries or in private parts. Some common signs of physical signs are –

* Suspicious or unexplained marks on the body

* Odd choice of clothing

* Being watchful

* Appearing frightened


Suspicious or unexplained marks on the body – A child facing physical abuse has unexplained marks on his body like bruises, welts, burns. These marks show a pattern as if these occurrences are regular. A person does not burn themselves every day. So if a child says they burn themselves twice a week, that’s suspicious.

Odd choice of clothing – Clothing choice depends on the place of injury. For example, wearing long sleeves on a hot day to cover burns on wrists.

Being watchful – Always on the lookout as if something bad will happen to them. They are suspicious of everyone’s motives. 

Appearing frightened – They might seem frightened to go to a particular place or to meet a specific person. If anyone tries to touch them like even a hug or a handshake, they might flinch away.

2. Signs of emotional abuse


Some of these signs may suggest that a child is experiencing emotional abuse. Though only one sign is not enough to say that a child is being abused.

* Sudden change in behaviour 

* Low opinion about themselves

* Extreme behaviour

* Lack of attachment to parent or caregiver

* Age-inappropriate behaviour

Sudden change in behaviour – After being emotionally abused a child shows sudden changes in behaviour. They may appear withdrawn or afraid. They may suddenly do poorly in their school and other activities. 

Low opinion about themselves  – An Emotionally abused child loses their self-esteem. The talk poorly about themselves. Saying things like – I’m stupid, I am not good enough.

Extreme behaviour – An abused child shows extreme behaviour. For example, they might be overly compliant or very aggressive.

Lack of attachment to parent or caregiver – A normal child feels closest to their parents or their caregiver. But when they are abused, they don’t feel any kind of closeness.

Age-inappropriate behaviour – Emotional abuse stalls the child’s mental growth. They seem immature compared to other kids their age. Sometimes they show behaviour that’s not normal for their age. For example, sucking a thumb or peeing on the bed.

3. Signs of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse

Signs of sexual abuse in a child may include any of the following, but they are not limited to these symptoms only.

* Exhibits adult-like behaviours

* Having trouble sleeping

* Changes in mood or appetite 

* Pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease (STD)

* Withdrawal from others 

* Other physical signs 

Exhibits adult-like behaviours – Showing adult-like sexual behaviours, language is common for sexually abused children. They might ask other children to act sexually, play sexual games or mimic sexual behaviour. They might also start using words that are inappropriate for children.

Having trouble sleeping – They may have recurring nightmares. Some children even wet the bed. But they didn’t do so before such experiences.

Changes in mood or appetite – Sexually abused children may suffer from anxiety-related illness. These might affect their appetite as well. Often resulting in anorexia or bulimia. 

Pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease (STD) – Getting pregnant at a young age or having STD is an indicator of sexual abuse. Especially if it’s before the age of 14 years old. Urinary tract infections can also be a sign of abuse.

Withdrawal from others – They might feel afraid, alone and unworthy. So they stop engaging with their friends and family members. They might also try to stay away from specific people. In acute cases, they may try to run away from home.

Other physical signs -Children suffering from sexual abuse may have difficulty walking or sitting down. Moreover, they may have injuries in private parts of their body like,  breasts, buttocks or upper thighs.

4. Signs of neglect

A child who is subjected to neglect from parents or caregivers may show the following symptoms –

* Poor hygiene

* Lack of clothing and supplies

* Poor performance in school 

* Not getting necessary medical help

Poor hygiene – A child wearing dirty clothes or having unwashed skin, hair is a signal of neglect. This increases the risk of children getting sick.

Lack of clothing and supplies – They don’t have enough food or clothing to meet physical needs. Hence, they try to hide food for later or take food, money without asking.

Poor performance in school – Underperforming in school and below-average attendance are warning signs of neglect.

Not getting necessary medical help – They do not get necessary attention for medical, dental or other problems. 

Keep in mind, only one sign is not enough to say someone is being abused. But recognising more than one sign in a child indicates that the child needs protection. In that case, take the necessary steps to provide child protection.

How to ensure child protection?

If you think a child needs protection, intervene for the best interest of the child. Also, keep in mind that the person carrying out the abuse may also be in need of help. For example, a  young parent or a stressed parent. However, it is not just the parent’s responsibility to provide child protection. The responsibility falls on the whole community.  To learn more about child protection, go to the link below. Take these courses and help make the world a better place for children.  If you or someone you know needs help, help is available on the followings. Do not hesitate to reach out if you think a child needs protection.
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Closing notes

Child abuse is a heinous crime. Not just against children, against all of humanity. But it is still taboo and not talked about enough. Not having enough knowledge and understanding makes way for more children being abused. Learn more about child protection and preserve innocuous lives.

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