Community > Safeguarding Children > Appendix 2: What is Child Abuse?

We understand child abuse to be the ill treatment or neglect of a child/young person that leads to physical, sexual or emotional injury or harm.

1. Signs and Symptoms of Child Neglect

  • Abandonment or desertion
  • Children persistently left alone with out adequate care and supervision
  • Malnourishment, lacking food, inappropriate food or erratic feeding
  • Lack of warmth
  • Lack of adequate clothing
  • Lack of protection and exposure to danger, including moral danger, or lack of supervision appropriate to the child’s age
  • Persistent failure to attend school
  • Non-organic failure to thrive, that is a child not gaining weight not alone due to malnutrition but also due to emotional deprivation
  • Failure to provide adequate care for a child’s medical problems
  • Exploited, overworked.

2. Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Child Abuse

  • Rejection
  • Lack of praise and encouragement
  • Lack of comfort and love
  • Lack of attachment
  • Lack of proper stimulation (for example, fun and play)
  • Lack of continuity of care (for example, frequent moves)
  • Serious over-protectiveness
  • Inappropriate non-physical punishment (for example, locking in bedrooms)
  • Persistent exposure to family conflicts
  • Exposure to violence
  • Inappropriate expectations of a child’s behavior-relative to his or her age and stage of development
  • Every child who is abused sexually or physically or who is neglected is also emotionally abused.

3. Signs and Symptoms of Physical Abuse

  • Bruises
  • Fractures
  • Swollen joints
  • Burns or scalds
  • Abrasions or lacerations
  • Haemorrhages (retinal, subdural)
  • Damage to body organs
  • Poisonings-repeated (by, for example, prescribed drugs or alcohol)
  • Failure to thrive
  • Coma or unconsciousness
  • Death.

4. Signs and Symptoms of Child Sexual Abuse

Non-Contact Sexual Abuse

  • Offensive sexual remarks, including statements the offender makes with regard to the child’s sexual attributes, what he or she would like to do to the child and other sexual comments.
  • Obscene phone calls.
  • Independent ‘exposure’ involving the offender showing the victim his or her private parts and/or masturbating in front of the victim
  • ‘Voyeurism’ involving instances when the offender observes the victim in a state of undress or in activities that provide the offender with sexual gratification. These may include activities that others do not regard as even remotely sexually stimulating.

Sexual Contact

  • Any touching of the intimate body parts – offender fondling or masturbating the victim and/or get the victim to fondle and/or masturbate them. Fondling can be either outside or inside clothes.  Also includes ‘frottage’, that is where the offender gains sexual gratification from rubbing his or her genitals against the victim’s body or clothing.

Oral-Genital Sexual Abuse

  • Involves the offender licking, kissing, sucking or biting on the child’s genitals or inducing the child to do the same to them.

Interfemoral Sexual Abuse

  • Sometimes referred to as ‘dry sex’ or ‘vulvar intercourse’, involves the offender placing his penis between the child’s thighs.

Penetrative Sexual Abuse

  • ‘Digital penetration’ involving putting fingers in the vagina or anus, or both. Usually the victim is penetrated by the offender, but sometimes the offender gets the child to penetrate them.
  • ‘Penetration with objects ‘involving penetration of the vagina, anus or occasionally mouth with an object.
  • ‘Genital penetration’ involving the penis entering the vagina, sometimes partially.
  • ‘Anal penetration’ involving the penis penetrating the anus.

Sexual Exploitation

  • Involvessituationsofsexualvictimisationwherethepersonwhoisresponsiblefor the exploitation may not have direct sexual contact with, the child. Two types of this abuse are child pornography and child ‘ prostitution.
  • ‘Child pornography’ includes still photography, videos and movies and, more recently, computer-generated pornography.
  • ‘Child prostitution’ for the most part involves children of latency age in adolescence. However, children as young as four and five are known to be abused in this way.

Sexual Abuse In Combination With Other Abuse

  • The sexual abuses described above may be found in combination with other abuses, such as physical abuse and urination and defecation on the victim. In some cases, physical abuse is an integral part of the sexual abuse; in others, drugs and alcohol may be given to the victim.

Carers and professionals should be alert to the following physical and behavioural signs that may indicate sexual abuse:

  • Bleeding from the vagina or anus
  • Difficulty or pain in passing urine or faeces
  • An infection may occur secondary to sexual abuse, which may or may not be a definitive sexually transmitted disease. Professionals should be informed if a child has a persistent vaginal discharge or has warts or a rash in the genital area.
  • Noticeable and uncharacteristic change of behaviour
  • Hints about sexual activity
  • Age-inappropriate understanding of sexual behaviour
  • Inappropriate seductive behaviour
  • Sexually aggressive behaviour with others
  • Uncharacteristic sexual play with peers or with toys
  • Unusual reluctance to join in normal activities which involve undressing, for example, games or swimming.

Particular behavioural signs and emotional problems suggestive of child abuse in young children (0-10):

  • Mood change, for example acting out or the child becomes fearful or withdrawn.
  • Lack of concentration (change in school performance)
  • Bed wetting, soiling
  • Psychosomatic complaints: pains, headaches
  • Skin disorders
  • Nightmares, changes in sleep patterns
  • School refusal
  • Separation anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Isolation

Particular behavioural signs and emotional problems suggestive of child abuse in older children (over 10):

  • Mood change, for example, depression, failure to communicate
  • Running away
  • Drug, alcohol, or solvent abuse
  • Self-mutilation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Delinquency
  • Truancy
  • Eating disorders
  • Isolation

* Adapted from Children First, National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children,
Dublin: Stationery Office, 1999, pp. 125-131.

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