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Types of child abuse

  • Children, young people and families

This page gives information about the main forms of abuse and some of the possible signs and symptoms. It is important to be aware that that these do not always mean a child is being abused and it could be that a child may be worried about school, friends or other problems that can have an effect on their behaviour. A mark or bruise may be accidental as bumps and bruises are part of growing up. However, when this is in a place where you would not expect to see bruising, then this could be due to abuse.

Physical abuse

This can involve hitting, biting, shaking, poisoning, burning, scalding and other forms of physical injury, including female genital mutilation.

Warning signs include:

  • injuries to young babies who are unable to move on their own
  • bruises where you would not normally expect to find them, for example, in and around the mouth
  • bruises with a distinctive mark or pattern, such as belt marks and marks made by an object
  • burns and scald marks with clear outlines, for example small round marks that could be caused by a cigarette
  • large numbers of scars of different sizes and ages
  • bite marks.

Emotional abuse

This occurs when a child's needs for love, security, praise and recognition are not met. It may result in a child becoming anxious, withdrawn, unhappy or lacking in confidence.

Emotional abuse may happen when an adult constantly behaves in an uncaring way to a child. A child who is often criticised or subjected to bullying or racial abuse may also experience emotional abuse. Parents who are over-protective to an extreme degree so that they prevent their child from doing usual childhood activities can also cause emotional abuse. Children who live with domestic violence also suffer this type of abuse.

Warning signs include:

  • excessively clingy or attention seeking behaviour
  • very low self esteem or self criticism
  • withdrawn behaviour or fearfulness
  • despondency
  • a child who is too eager to please
  • eating disorders
  • a child made to carry out tasks inappropriate to their age
  • a child not allowed to play with friends or do usual childhood activities
  • a child living in a household where there are many arguments and violence.


This can result when adults fail to meet the basic physical needs of children. All children need warmth, shelter, food, clothing, love and attention in order to grow properly.

Warning signs include:

  • inadequate supervision or being left alone for long periods
  • lack of stimulation, education or social contact
  • constant hunger, stealing or gorging food
  • failure to seek medical advice when needed
  • inappropriate clothing for conditions
  • a child who appears dirty and smelly
  • a child who looks thin and ill
  • a child who is not safely supervised.

Sexual abuse

This 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.  Sexual abuse can take many forms, from touching to sexual intercourse. It can also include involving children in pornography or watching sexual activity. Sexual abuse can happen to boys as well as girls and can be difficult to detect. Most abuse is carried out by someone known to the child or young person.

Warning signs include:

  • a child who displays sexual knowledge or behaviour inappropriate
  • a child who hints at sexual activity through words or play
  • a child who is being encouraged into secretive relationships with an adult
  • sexually transmitted infection or urinary infection
  • repeated sleep disturbances, nightmares and bed wetting
  • genital soreness and discomfort
  • behavioural disturbances such as self mutilation in older children.

How can you help?

All children have a right to be protected from harm or abuse. If you have any concerns that a child or an unborn baby might be being harmed you must talk to someone, such as the police or the children's service.

The law says that if a child has been hurt or is danger of being harmed the children's service has to investigate. However, even when abuse has occurred all efforts will be made to support parents in helping them to look after their children properly. All calls are taken seriously and will be treated in confidence.

Although you might feel uneasy about reporting concerns, please try and think what life must be like for that child or young person. It is much worse to ignore the problem as it will not go away. Your action could help save a child from further harm.

Further information about what to do if you are worried about a child being abused is given in the Government's leaflet about child abuse which you can download from this page.  

If you have any concerns about possible child abuse you should contact the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) by calling 020 8359 4066.


  • Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH)
  • North London Business Park (NLBP), Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP
  • Tel: 020 8359 4066
  • FAX: 0871 594 8766
  • Email: mash@barnet.gov.uk

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