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Ways to Recognise Child Abuse and What to do Next

Children are vulnerable and depend on all the adults in their life to protect and look out for them. Here are the signs to look out for if you suspect that a child is being abused, and advice on what to do next


Child abuse is a tough subject and one that we'd rather believe didn't exist, but for children who are being abused, it's real - and we need to pay attention when we think something untoward might be taking place.

It can be a difficult decision to report suspected child abuse, especially when the perpetrator is someone you know, but in the end it comes down to the child's safety. We all make mistakes but when a child's well-being is on the line, it's better to err on the side of caution.

Child abuse in the UK

Because abuse isn't always reported, it's hard to know how many victims there are. According to the NSPCC there are over 50,000 children in the UK identified as needing protection. Sadly they estimate that for every child identified there are 8 more who need help.

We are around children in many different situations every day, from your child's nursery or school, their play dates, public parks, to extra-curriculars and at gatherings. But how can you help identify a child who needs help?

We asked the experts at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) for their advice on how to talk about child abuse with children, how to identify abuse and what to do about it.

How do I talk to my child about sexual abuse?

The NSPCC recommends that parents talk to their children from a young age about keeping safe. You don't even need to use the term sexual abuse.

They have developed the Underwear Rule to help parents have those conversations. This uses PANTS as a non-threatening mechanism, with each letter standing for a "safety rule."

  • Privates are private
  • Always remember your body belongs to you
  • No means no
  • Talk about secrets that upset you
  • Speak up, someone can help.

The key message is that the areas covered by your underwear are private to you, and no one should ask to see or touch them.

What are the signs that a child is being abused?

It can be hard to know if a child is being abused as they may not talk about it, and they may not even know that what is happening to them is abuse. Identifying abuse can be hard, especially when the symptoms can also reflect something else, from a health issue to other major changes at home, such as divorce.

These are not all encompassing and just because a child demonstrates one of these behaviours doesn't mean they are being abused, but they are a good place to start:

  1. Changes in behaviour - a child may start becoming aggressive, withdrawn, clingy, have difficulties sleeping or start wetting the bed.
  2. Avoiding a particular adult - the child may dislike or seem afraid of a particular person and try to avoid spending time alone with them for no apparent reason.
  3. Sexually inappropriate behaviour - children who have been abused may behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or use sexually explicit language in advance of their years.
  4. Physical problems - the child may develop health problems, including soreness in the genital and anal areas or sexually transmitted diseases.
  5. Problems out of home - in the nursery, play group or school, an abused child may have difficulty concentrating and learning. Their performance may suddenly change.
  6. Children may also give hints and clues that the abuse is happening without revealing it outright. They may seem secretive.

How do I report child sexual abuse?

If you suspect a child is being sexually abused, it's important not to wait until you have proof. If you suspect a child is being sexually abused you can talk directly to the police or your local children's social services.

You can also get advice or report your concerns anonymously to the NSPCC by phoning their free helpline on 0808 800 50000808 800 5000 FREE. Or you can report sexual abuse to the NSPCC via email or online. You'll find more information and advice about child sexual abuse on the NSPCC website.

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