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Last updated: 03.03.20

Child abuse: what is it?

When it comes to safeguarding children, one of the first steps is to understand exactly what constitutes child abuse, both from a wellbeing aspect and from a legal point of view.

What is child abuse?

There are many ways in which a child can be abused, but some of the most common are as follows:

  • Neglect – Neglect is when a child’s basic physical and mental needs are not being adequately met by their guardian or parent. This includes such neglect as not providing enough shelter or food, failing to adequately supervise the child or failing to protect the child from danger.
  • Psychological abuse – Psychological abuse is when an adult acts in a way towards a child that might damage the child’s emotional state or development. This can include withholding affection, unfair punishment, insulting the child or keeping the child in a state of fear.
  • Physical abuse – Physical abuse is when an adult causes physical pain and harm to a child such as hitting the child. This physical abuse be carried out as a punishment or simply as a means for the adult to take out their anger and frustration.
  • Sexual abuse – Sexual abuse is when an adult forces a child to take part in sexual activities, either with the adult or with others. This can include inappropriate physical contact, using the child for prostitution or online sexual activity with a child.

Domestic abuse can also be included as a form of child abuse, since a child witnessing domestic abuse can result in long term emotional issues which can affect them later in adulthood.

It is also worth mentioning that the list of ways in which a child can be abused is non-exhaustive. The best resource for determining whether an act constitutes abuses can be found on the NSPCC website.

What effect can child abuse have?

Child abuse can often have significant negative effects on the development of a child, as well as their adult life in the future. Beyond the physical effects which result from physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse, there are a host of other psychological issues from all forms of abuse which might not be immediately obvious.

Such effects can include a host of mental health problems such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder which can last long into later life, each bringing their own individual problems and making it harder for abuse victims to deal with stressful situations. Abuse can also have a negative impact on children’s ability to form relationships with others, leading them to become isolated from society and restricting them from pursuing relationship goals. Additionally, there are strong links between child abuse, substance abuse and criminal behaviour which can lead abuse victims into a series of vicious cycles which can reoccur throughout their lives.

Safeguarding and child abuse

Safeguarding is an integral element in the prevention of child abuse. It begins with those who work with children in a professional scope, whose training and understanding can prevent child abuse as it happens. Recognising the signs of abuse, knowing which actions to take and understanding the legal framework around child abuse are all important steps in preventing situations and incidents.

Those wishing to develop an understanding of child abuse and an awareness of the relevant signs and indications that someone is a victim of childhood may find our Awareness of Child Abuse and Neglect course informative and helpful. You can find it here.

You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this infographic on the signs of child abuse, and this video on safeguarding children.

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