Last updated: 16.05.23

What to Do if You Think a Child is Being Abused

The responsibility of safeguarding is shouldered by everyone who comes into contact with children and their families, as outlined by the Department for Education. Keeping children and young people safe is of the utmost importance, especially if you work in a role where you see them frequently and are ideally positioned to notice changes in their behaviour or appearance.

While teachers hold a specific position with which safeguarding measures can be implemented, anyone from parents to relatives, family friends or someone familiar with a family has a duty to help protect children and young people. In this article, we share advice on what to do if you think a child is being abused and how you should respond to concerns in order to keep them safe.

Please Note: If you suspect that a child is in imminent danger from abuse, you should call 999 and report your concerns to the police.

 What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse?

There is a range of different types of abuse, but many of them have similar signs that indicate something is wrong. Before we explore what to do if you are worried a child is being abused, here are some of the common signs that might indicate that a child is being abused.

  • A change in a child’s behaviour or personality, often without an obvious explanation
  • A child becoming more withdrawn, talking less and appearing sad or distracted 
  • Anxiety or increased instances of a child becoming upset, without a clear explanation
  • A child acting uncharacteristically aggressive
  • A child regularly running away or going missing
  • Poor personal hygiene and unwashed or poorly fitting clothes
  • A child that doesn’t seem to have many friends, or avoids interacting with their peers
  • A child showing signs of a difficult relationship with their parent or another adult
  • Speaking about or suggesting knowledge of inappropriate acts for their age
  • A child making an effort to wear clothes that cover their body and appearing distressed if asked to change

The above behaviours aren’t necessarily signs that a child or young person is being abused, but they do indicate that something bad might be happening and should warrant further investigation.

How to Spot Child Abuse

Whether you’re a parent, have relatives that are children, work with children or just regularly interact with your friend’s or neighbour’s children, you may be positioned to notice the signs and indicators of abuse. Having a safeguarding responsibility means being aware of how to spot child abuse so that you can take the necessary action to stop it.

Here’s what you need to remember.

Be Alert

The first step in helping to safeguard children is in knowing what the potential signs of abuse are and staying alert to them. Doing additional research online or taking a safeguarding course can give you a better idea of what these potential signs of abuse could be, as the list we shared above was only a general overview and didn’t cover all of the recognised types of abuse.

Keep in mind that no single behaviour is a definitive sign of a child being abused. But by being alert and noticing potentially worrying signs of abuse and neglect, you can notice patterns, know what’s normal and will be able to act immediately if a situation gets more serious.

Question Behaviours

If you’ve begun to notice concerning behaviours but the child in question hasn’t actually said anything to you about potential abuse, then you’ll need to try and ask the child some questions to understand where the change in their behaviour has come from. It can be very difficult to get young people to open up about abuse experiences, so having an ongoing, open dialogue with a child can result in them eventually feeling comfortable enough to open up. 

Keep a Record

If you’ve noticed a couple of potentially worrying signs that make you concerned for a child's welfare, you can keep records of your concerns and see whether there are any changes or patterns over time that you notice. This is particularly useful if a case ends up getting investigated, as you will have a written record of the events leading up to the report.

Having a record of indicators of abuse can also be useful when it comes to explaining what you are worried about. If there’s nothing significant that suggests abuse, but a child has been acting differently for a while, having evidence can make it easier to justify your worries and give a safeguarding professional a foundation to launch an investigation. 

What to Do if You Are Worried a Child Is Being Abused

Understanding the actions to take if you suspect someone is being abused is an essential part of keeping children and young people safe. Here’s what you should do if you suspect abuse. 

Ask for Help

Getting an outside perspective can help you get a deeper understanding of a potential safeguarding situation. Discussing a child’s behaviour with someone you trust could also help in figuring out how to proceed, as well as consulting teachers or healthcare professionals who interact with the child on a regular basis as they may have similar concerns.

If you work in an organisation where you interact with children, you’ll have at least one designated safeguarding lead. This individual will have received special training in how to deal with a range of safeguarding situations and should be your first point of call if you’re worried about a child you work with or support.

Refer and Report

Once you reach a point where you’re certain of your concerns, one of the key actions to take if abuse is suspected is to raise these concerns with the relevant authorities. This can vary depending on your position, but may involve speaking to a designated safeguarding lead or your local social services. 

If you can’t access a safeguarding professional or don’t know how to contact social services, the NSPCC has a daytime helpline where you can speak to an expert who will decide whether they need to contact another agency such as children’s services or the police based on your information. 

Even if you’re still unsure, it’s best to contact them for advice as an early assessment can potentially help save the life of a vulnerable child.

What to Do When a Child Discloses Abuse

If a child tells you that they have been or are being abused, you have a responsibility to act on this information so that the necessary actions can be taken to protect them.

The most important thing to remember is to listen to everything the child has to say and let them know that you believe them. It may also be a good idea, especially if the child is young, to tell them that they’ve done the right thing in talking to you about what has happened.

If possible, try and write down what the child has told you either as they’re telling you or right afterwards so that you remember everything. This will make it easier to report all the information back to a safeguarding lead or social worker.

Make sure to reassure the child that what has happened is not their fault and that you believe them and are taking them seriously. You should never promise a child that you’ll keep the information a secret, and ideally should tell them that you’re going to speak to someone else about what happened.

Children that have been abused may feel like they lack autonomy, so you’re advised to talk to the child about the next steps and what might happen. If you think the child is in immediate danger you should call the police, but otherwise you should follow the advice we have shared about who to contact when you suspect a case of child abuse or neglect.


Can you report someone to social services anonymously?

If you’re concerned that a child may be being abused, you should report your concern right away to your local council’s children's social care team. You will be asked for your details when you do this, but if you prefer you can ask for your report to be given anonymously.

What actions should be taken if there are concerns about harmful abuse and neglect?

If you have concerns that someone is being harmed by abuse or neglect, especially a child, you should always report your worries to a safeguarding lead or your local children’s services. After this action, an investigation will be launched to validate your concerns and, if abuse is suspected, action will be taken to protect the person that is being abused.

Why would a child lie about being physically abused?

A child lying about physical abuse could involve two different situations. In the first, a child that is actually being abused might lie to cover it up, and in the other a child that is not being abused lies and tells someone that they are.

Children that are being abused are often threatened by their abusers, which may lead to them lying about what has happened if questioned. This is because they are fearful of the consequences of telling someone and their abuser finding out.

In the opposite situation, a child might lie about being abused because they want attention, are feeling or being neglected, or don’t fully understand the impact of what they’re claiming. Children that make up false allegations of abuse should always be made to realise the severity of their actions and the importance of truth in these situations, but you should always treat allegations of abuse as true just in case a child is actually at risk.


If you have concerns about the welfare of a child or young person then you have a responsibility to take action. Everyone who’s involved in a child’s life has to work together to successfully safeguard them from any potential abuse, and reporting any serious concerns you have will help do this. 

If you would like to undertake safeguarding training to better understand how you can help vulnerable children, take a look at our online Safeguarding training courses. You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this infographic on the signs of child abuse.