Abuse - guidance for professionals

Child abuse is harm done to a child or young person (anyone under the age of 18) either by a family member, someone else known to them or, very rarely, a stranger.


Children can be abused in their own home, in another person's home, in a community setting or in an institution, such as a children's home or educational setting. The abuser may be an adult or another child or children.

Types of abuse

There are four main types of abuse: physical, sexual, emotional and neglect. Some of the forms in which they are inflicted are detailed below. It can be inflicted intentionally or by a person who knows it is taking place not making sure it does not happen.

Physical abuse

There are many forms of physical abuse. The most common includes:

  • Hitting
  • Punching
  • Shaking
  • Throwing
  • Poisoning
  • Burning
  • Scalding
  • Drowning
  • Suffocating

On rare occasions parents or carers may either make up symptoms or try to make a child ill by inducing symptoms. This is known as 'Fabricated Illness' or 'Induced Illness'.

Sexual abuse

This involves either forcing a child or young person, or encouraging them, to take part in sexual activities irrespective of whether they are aware of what is happening or not.

Sexual abuse may involve touching a child or young person's genital areas, making them touch someone else's, involving them in the production of pornographic material, making them watch sexual material or behaviour, or making them do sexual things either to themselves or with other people.

Sexual Behaviour Service

The Sexual Behaviour Service is a multi-disciplinary team with input from psychologists, a clinical nurse specialist, psychiatrists and a social worker. It treats men and women with a combination of mental health problems and a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour and/or sexual offending. Referrals are accepted via mental health teams, social services, probation services and self-referrals via GPs.

Emotional abuse

This is the most insidious and pervasive type of abuse, which affects the child or young person's innate sense of self-esteem and image.

Emotional abuse can be inflicted in a number of ways, for example:

  • Regular belittling or constantly criticising
  • Regular name calling
  • Expressing a wish they had never been born
  • Expecting children and young people to do things that are beyond a level of responsibility they could reasonably be expected to fulfil. Examples of this are young children being forced to supervise or care for their younger siblings
  • Demanding that a child meets the caregiver's needs, for example that they prove their love for them or does all the housework
  • Seeing, hearing or being aware of domestic violence
  • Serious bullying or scapegoating
  • Making children feel frightened or in danger
  • Making children do things and, by so doing, taking advantage of them

In contrast, it can also be caused by suffocating love which may exhibit itself by preventing them being involved in normal activities that are age appropriate, such as going out or mixing with other people. This could be either because the caregiver is over protective and anticipates danger in normal social activities; or wants to reduce their social contacts in order that the child remains dependent on them.


Neglect is when a child or young person's basic physical or emotional needs are not met if this could result in their health or development being damaged.

All children and young people should feel confident that their physical needs will be provided for until they are adults. This includes the provision of:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Safety in the home
  • Adequate clothing
  • Adequate cleanliness
  • Warmth
  • Supervision for vulnerable children
  • Medical treatment if necessary
  • Protection from physical and emotional harm or danger

What is 'significant harm'?

There are no absolute criteria on which to rely when judging what constitutes significant harm. Under s31 (10) of the Children Act 2004, the question of whether harm suffered by a child is significant relates specifically to the child's health and development. Their health or development should be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child and the parenting that we would reasonably expect them to receive from their parent/carer.

To understand and identify significant harm, it is necessary to consider:

  • The nature of harm, in term of mistreatment or failure to provide adequate care
  • The impact on the child's health and development 
  • The child's development within the context of their family and wider environment
  • Any special needs, such as a medical condition, communication impairment or disability, that may affect the child's development and care within the family
  • The capacity of parents to meet adequately the child's needs 
  • The wider and environmental family context

Reporting concerns