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Child abuse – what is it and how do you recognise it

2015 October 8

Every nanny and childcare professional should know what child abuse is and how to spot the signs. You will be probably be tested on this knowledge during an OFSTED inspection.

Child abuse is causing harm to a child, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There are four types of abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.

Abused children often share some common traits. They may be reluctant to let you go in the evening or to be alone with certain people, they may suffer academically if they are at school or show signs of delayed development, they may be withdrawn or seem constantly alert and anxious, they may be aggressive and show lots of anger, they may have trouble forming new relationships or attachments with adults or with peers. Parents may be unwilling to discuss their child’s behaviour or injuries and avoid being in social situations.

Physical abuse can be easiest to spot. As the name implies it is harming a child physically, for example by hitting, kicking, burning, shaking or punching. Most physical abuse leaves marks on the child, although some abusers have learnt to minimise the outward signs while still causing significant damage internally.

Look out for: frequent unexplained or poorly explained bangs and bruises, any bruises shaped like hands or fingers, bruising around the mouth (especially in bottle fed babies), burns, and broken bones.

Sexual abuse can also have significant clues in a child’s actions or language. Sexual abuse is forcing a child to participate in or watch sexual acts. It includes rape, penetration, touching genitals or forcing the child to touch another’s genitals, taking explicit photographs, and performing sexual acts in front of them.

Look out for: inappropriate vocabulary, sexualised role play or imaginative play with dolls, physical signs such as abdominal pain, urinary tract infections, unusual discharge, bruising or tearing of genital or anal areas, and bedwetting.

Emotional abuse is causing a child emotional harm. It can also be labelled verbal abuse but is not limited to an adult telling a child that they are worthless or hated. Witnessing domestic violence can also be classed as emotional abuse.

Look out for: poor self-esteem, a child who says they are hated or unloved or blames themselves frequently, unexplained head or stomach pain, indifference or fear towards parents/other people they should have a strong attachment to, poor sleep, unusual fears or phobias

Neglect is a failure to meet a child’s basic needs. It can be physical or emotional.

Look out for:
Physical neglect: Lack of personal hygiene, parasite infestations such as lice or threadworm, poor weight gain or malnutrition, untreated illness, dirty or ragged clothes or wearing the same outfit for days at a time, hoarding or stealing food, possibly overly self-sufficient because the parent/carer doesn’t want to look after them
Emotional neglect: Uninterested in forming relationships OR desperate to be the focus of an adult’s attention, very big appetite for food, over-affectionate, poor self-esteem and low sense of self-worth

IMPORTANT: if you suspect that a child is being abused call the NSPCC or your Local Safeguarding Board to report it. You don’t need to have proof.

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