Child abuse and neglect - the emotional effects: the impact on children and adolescents: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What is child abuse?

All parents upset their children sometimes. Saying ‘no’ and managing difficult behaviour is an essential part of parenting.

Tired or stressed parents can lose control and can do or say something they regret, and may even hurt the child. If severe or if it this happens often, it can seriously harm the child. That is why abuse is defined in law. The Children Act 1989 states that abuse should be considered to have happened when someone's actions have caused a child to suffer ‘significant harm’ to their health or development.

‘Significant harm’ means that someone is:

  • punishing a child too much
  • hitting or shaking a child
  • constantly criticising, threatening or rejecting a child
  • sexually interfering with or assaulting a child
  • not looking after a child – not giving them enough to eat, ignoring them, not playing or talking with them or not making sure that they are safe.

Who abuses children?

Children are usually abused by someone in their immediate family circle. This can include parents, brothers or sisters, babysitters or other familiar adults. It is quite unusual for strangers to be involved.

 How can you tell if a child is being abused?

Children may present with a variety of difficulties and behaviours depending on where, when and the type of abuse they have experienced.

It can be hard to detect long-standing abuse by an adult the child is close to. It is often very difficult for the child to tell anyone about it, as the abuser may have threatened to hurt them if they tell anybody. A child may not say anything because they think it is their fault, that no one will believe them or think they will be teased or punished. The child may even love the abusing adult. They want the abuse to stop, but they don't want the adult to go to prison or for the family to break up.

Some of the signs of abuse are described below.

Physically abused children may:

  • be watchful, cautious or wary of adults
  • be unable to play and be spontaneous
  • be aggressive or abusive
  • bully other children or are being bullied themselves
  • be unable to concentrate, underachieve at school and avoid activities that involve removal of clothes, e.g. sports
  • have temper tantrums and behave thoughtlessly
  • lie, steal, truant from school and get into trouble with the police
  • find it difficult to trust other people and make friends.

Sexually abused children may:

  • suddenly behave differently when the abuse starts
  • think badly of themselves
  • not look after themselves
  • use sexual talk or ideas in their play that you would usually see only in someone much older
  • withdraw into themselves or be secretive
  • under-achieve at school
  • start wetting or soiling themselves
  • be unable to sleep
  • behave in an inappropriately seductive or flirtatious way
  • be fearful, frightened of physical contact
  • become depressed and take an overdose or harm themselves
  • run away, become promiscuous or take to prostitution
  • drink too much or start using drugs
  • develop an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.

Emotionally abused or neglected children may:

  • be slow to learn to walk and talk
  • be very passive and unable to be spontaneous
  • have feeding problems and grow slowly
  • find it hard to develop close relationships
  • be over-friendly with strangers
  • get on badly with other children of the same age
  • be unable to play imaginatively
  • think badly of themselves
  • be easily distracted and do badly at school.


This leaflet is based on material produced by The Royal College of Psychiatrists.  ( 
© March 2012  - The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Reproduced with permission.

MHAF would like to thank the Royal College of Psychiatrists, United Kingdom, for kindly granting permission to use this leaflet  based on material produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists ( © March 2012.