Signs of Abuse

Childhood is a time of playfulness, tumbling, climbing and adventures. And as such all children are liable to get scratches, bruises, bumps and cuts from time-to-time. It is therefore sometimes difficult to tell the difference between injuries suffered as part of a quite normal childhood, and those caused by physical abuse.

One of the best ways to help children is learning to recognise the signs of abuse. While these signs often take the form of physical injuries, behavioural and personality indicators are also important when identifying abuse. The parent or other adult caregiver may also display significant indicators that point towards the presence of child abuse.

The diagnosis of child abuse will rely not only on indicators but also on a family history and a social, educational and health assessment of the child. The list given below is therefore not, in itself, a comprehensive tool for recognising child abuse but is provided as guidance only.

It is important to recognise that the different types of abuse often occur simultaneously. For instance where a child is physically abused, they often suffer emotional abuse as well. If you perceive a combination or repetition of any of the signs of child abuse then please contact the relevant social services office immediately. You can find their details on the Useful Contacts Page

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse may result in one or more of the symptoms described below.  Aside from direct physical contact, physical abuse can also be caused when a parent or caregiver feigns the symptoms of, or deliberately causes ill health to a child in their care.


Signs of physical abuse can include:


  • Bruises on legs before a child is mobile
  • Black eyes without bruising to the forehead
  • Finger tip bruising and bruises in various stages of healing
  • Cigarette type burns anywhere, patterned burns, rope burns, contact burns in unexpected places
  • Lacerations to the body or mouth
  • Multiple fractures, evidence of old fractures, any fractures to children under two years old or not independently mobile
  • Fading injuries noticeable after an absence from school, nursery or children’s centre
  • A child who appears frightened of parent/carer, and is reluctant to return home
  • Pulls back or away when approach by an adult
  • Suffers from frozen watchfulness  - remains quite and alert but does not respond or participate
  • Constantly or repeatedly asks in words/actions what will happen next

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.  The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative or non-penetrative acts.  They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving the children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.


Signs of sexual abuse displayed by children can include:


  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Pain/itching/bleeding/bruising/discharge to the genital area/anus
  • Urinary infections/sexually transmitted diseases
  • Persistent sore throats
  • Eating disorders
  • Self mutilation
  • Refusal or reluctance to change for or participate in physical activities
  • Exhibits an inappropriate sexual knowledge for their age
  • Exhibits sexualised behaviour in their play or with other children
  • Lack of peer relationships
  • Sleep disturbances, acute anxiety/fear
  • School refusal, running away from home

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child's development.  It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, undervalued or a disappointment.  It may feature inappropriate expectations being imposed on children, relative to their actual development or age.  


Signs of Emotional Abuse can include:


  • Excessive behaviour, such as extreme aggression, passivity or become overly demanding
  • Children who self-harm, for instance by scratching or cutting themselves
  • Acting either inappropriately adult or infantile
  • Children who persistently run away from home
  • Children who show high levels of anxiety, unhappiness or withdrawal


Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and/or psychological needs.  This is likely to result in the serious impairment of the child's health or development.  


Signs of can neglect include:


  • Frequent absenteeism from school
  • Begs or steals money or food
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations or glasses
  • Lacks appropriate clothing, e.g. for weather conditions, shoes too small, ill-fitting clothes
  • Clothes are often/consistently dirty
  • Teeth are dirty, hair not clean and/or contains infestations
  • Hands or feet are cold, red, and/or swollen
  • The child appears to have had an avoidable accident or episode


The Parent or Other Adult Caregiver:


  • Denies existence of or blames the child for problems at home or at school
  • Sees and describes the child as worthless, burdensome or in any negative light
  • Unrealistic expectations of the child i.e. demands a level of academic or physical performance not appropriate for their age
  • Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations of any injuries or incidents
  • Appears indifferent to or overtly rejects the child
  • Refuses offers of help for the child's problems
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