Types of child abuse

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children defines child abuse as:

when a child is intentionally harmed by an adult or another child – it can be over a period of time but can also be a one-off action.

It can be physical, sexual or emotional and it can happen in person or online. It can also be a lack of love, care and attention – this is called neglect.

To learn more about recognising the signs of abuse or neglect in children, please see our recognising abuse page. 

A warning sign doesn’t automatically mean a child is being abused or neglected. Always follow up a suspicion of abuse with support and further investigation.

Types of abuse

There are four main types of abuse. 

Physical abuse

This is when someone hurts a child on purpose and with the intent to cause harm. This can include hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning, drowning, or suffocating. If it causes them physical harm, such as cuts, bruises, broken bones or other injuries, it is physical abuse.

Anyone can hurt a child - a relative, friend or stranger. It can also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child.

Signs of physical abuse 

  • Children with frequent injuries
  • Children with unexplained or unusual fractures or broken bones
  • Children with unexplained:
    • bruises or cuts
    • burns or scalds
    • bite marks

Children may be more at risk if their parents have problems with drugs, alcohol and mental health or if they live in a home where domestic abuse happens. Babies and disabled children also have a higher risk of suffering physical abuse.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is when a child's feelings and emotions are manipulated or shamed on purpose. This can take different forms, for example:

  • when a child is unfairly blamed for everything
  • told they are stupid, worthless or ugly
  • ignored or never shown any emotion in interactions

Emotional abuse is the severe and persistent ill treatment of a child. It can have long-lasting and devastating effects on a child’s emotional health and development.

Signs of emotional abuse

  • The child is excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Parents or carers who withdraw their attention from their child, giving the child the ‘cold shoulder’
  • Parents or carers blaming their problems on their child
  • Parents or carers who humiliate their child, for example, by name-calling or making negative comparisons.

Emotional abuse may be the only form of abuse suffered by a child, or it might be part of a wider pattern of abuse.

Sexual abuse and exploitation

Sexual abuse is any sexual activity with a child, or inducing a child to act in sexually inappropriate ways. 

Many children and young people do not recognise themselves as victims. A child may not understand what is happening and may not even understand that it is wrong.

The sexual abuse of children is more than just physical sexual contact. It includes:

  • sexual touching, masturbation, kissing, rubbing - clothed or unclothed
  • all penetrative sex
  • intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child
  • making, showing, or distributing indecent images of children.
  • grooming children for future abuse - in person or online

Signs of sexual abuse

  • displaying knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to their age
  • using sexual language or have sexual knowledge that you wouldn’t expect them to have
  • asking others to behave sexually or play sexual games
  • exhibiting physical sexual health problems, including soreness in the genital and anal areas, sexually transmitted infections or underage pregnancy

Sexual abuse is not only perpetrated by adult males. Women can commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.

Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse. This is when an individual or group takes advantage of a child (anyone under 18) to coerce, manipulate or deceive them into sexual activity.

This is done:

  • in exchange for something the victim needs or wants
  • for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator.

Even if the activity appears consensual, the victim still may have been sexually manipulated. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact, and can also occur online or through social media. 

Signs of child sexual exploitation
  • appearing regularly with unexplained gifts or new possessions
  • associating with other young people involved in exploitation
  • having older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • suffering from sexually transmitted infections or pregnancies
  • changes in emotional well-being
  • misuse of drugs and alcohol
  • going missing for periods of time or regularly coming home late
  • regularly missing school or not taking part in education


Neglect is where a child is not looked after. It is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic and essential needs.

This can include:

  • not providing adequate food, water, clothing, and shelter
  • leaving a child alone in dangerous situations, or to watch after themselves when they are very young
  • failure to provide medical care
  • failure to meet the child's emotional needs

Warning signs of neglect

  • living in a home that is indisputably dirty or unsafe
  • persistent hunger and signs of malnutrition
  • lack of hygiene - dirty clothes and hair that may lead to lice or nits
  • lack of adequate clothing for the time of year - such as not having a winter coat
  • living in dangerous conditions, i.e. around drugs, alcohol or violence
  • often acting angry, aggressive or self-harming
  • failing to receive basic health care
  • parents who fail to seek medical treatment when their children are ill or injured

If a child does not have a safe and stable home, this is neglect.