What is child abuse?

Children have a right to be safe. But some children are hurt, neglected and used by adults or other children.

Child abuse is any action by another person – adult or child – that causes significant harm to a child. It can be physical, sexual or emotional, but can just as often be about a lack of love, care and attention.  An abused child will often experience more than one type of abuse, as well as other difficulties in their lives. It often happens over a period of time, rather than being a one-off event. And it can increasingly happen online. (NSPCC 2016)

The NSPCC summarises the main types:

Physical

Physical abuse is deliberately hurting a child causing injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts.

It isn’t accidental - children who are physically abused suffer violence such as being hit, kicked, poisoned, burned, slapped or having objects thrown at them. Shaking or hitting babies can cause non-accidental head injuries (NAHI). Sometimes parents or carers will make up or cause the symptoms of illness in their child, perhaps giving them medicine they don’t need and making the child unwell – this is known as fabricated or induced illness (FII).

There’s no excuse for physically abusing a child. It causes serious, and often long-lasting, harm – and in severe cases, death.

Watch the NSPCC's Alfie story for more information:

Emotional Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development.

Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them.

Children who are emotionally abused are usually suffering another type of abuse or neglect at the same time – but this isn’t always the case.

Watch the NSPCC's Words can hurt video for more information.

Sexual A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities.  This doesn't have to be physical contact and it can happen online.

Sometimes the child won't understand that what's happening to them is abuse.  They may not even understand that it's wrong.

Watch the NSPCC's Sarah's story for more information.

The PANTs campaign teaches children important messages, like their body belongs to them and they should tell an adult if they're upset or worried.

Neglect

Neglect is the on-going failure to meet a child's basic needs and is the most common form of child abuse.

  • A child may be left hungry or dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, supervision, medical or health care.
  • A child may be put in danger or not protected from physical or emotional harm.
  • They may not get the love, care and attention they need from their parents.

A child who's neglected will often suffer from other abuse as well. Neglect is dangerous and can cause serious, long-term damage - even death.

The NSPCC Della's Story describes a situation of neglect and what to do.