Recognising abuse in children

The warning signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect can vary from child to child. By understanding the warning signs, you can respond to problems as early as possible. It is important to recognise that a warning sign doesn’t always mean a child is being abused.

Children vulnerable to abuse

Certain kinds of children are more vulnerable to abuse than others. This can include:

  • disabled children
  • children whose parents have alcohol or substance abuse issues
  • children in care 
  • children with a history of domestic abuse
  • children with mental health problems, or with a parent who has mental health problems
  • children living in hard social conditions, such as poverty, isolation, or poor housing

Disabled children may be especially vulnerable to abuse. They may have impaired capacity which prevents them from resisting or avoid danger. They may have speech, language and communication needs. This may make it difficult to tell others what is happening.

Signs of abuse and neglect

Some of the following signs may indicate abuse or neglect:

  • behaviour changes – such as acting aggressive, disruptive, withdrawn or clingy
  • difficulty sleeping or wetting the bed
  • ill-fitting and/or dirty clothes or poor hygiene
  • often tired and hungry
  • avoiding specific family members or friends, without an obvious reason
  • avoiding participation in physical activity, or changing clothes in front of others
  • having problems at school, such as a sudden lack of concentration and learning
  • mentions being left home alone, with inappropriate carers or with strangers
  • late to reach developmental milestones, such as speaking or walking, with no medical reason
  • frequent absence from school or education, often late to arrive, and with parents late to pick them up
  • reluctance to go home after school
  • parents who are dismissive and non-responsive to practitioners’ concerns
  • Parents who appear drunk or on drugs when picking up their child from school
  • drinking alcohol often from an early age
  • expressing concern for younger siblings without explaining why
  • talk about running away
  • shying away from touch or flinching at sudden movement