Skip to site content Skip to main menu

What is child abuse?

This section will cover:

What is Child Abuse?

Physical Abuse

Sexual Abuse

Emotional Abuse



What is Child Abuse?  

Child abuse is any action by another person, adult or child, that causes or is likely to cause significant harm to a child. It can be physical, sexual or emotional, but can just as often be about a lack of love, care and attention. We also know that neglect, whatever form it takes, can be just as damaging to a child as abuse. 

An abused child will often experience more than one type of abuse, as well as other difficulties in their lives. It often happens over a period of time, rather than being a one-off event. Abuse can also occur online.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is deliberately hurting a child causing injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts. It isn’t accidental - children who are physically abused suffer violence such as being hit, shaken, kicked, poisoned, burned, scalded, slapped or having objects thrown at them.  

Shaking or hitting babies can cause non-accidental head injuries.  

Sometimes parents or carers make up or cause the symptoms of illness in their child, perhaps giving them medicine they don’t need and making the child unwell, this is known as fabricated or induced illness.

There’s no excuse for physically abusing a child.  It causes serious, and often long-lasting, harm and in severe cases, death.

Bumps and bruises do not necessarily mean a child is being physically abused; all children have accidents, trips and falls.

There is not one sign or symptom to look out for that will say a child is definitely being physically abused. But if a child often has injuries, there seems to be a pattern, or the explanation doesn’t match the injury then this should be investigated.

Examples of physical abuse can include:

  • Hitting, slapping, shaking, throwing, kicking,
  • Burning or scalding,
  • Drowning, suffocating or choking,
  • Bite marks,
  • Fractures or broken bones.

Sexual Abuse

A child is sexually abused when they are forced, enticed or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This doesn't have to be physical contact and it can happen online. Sometimes the child won't understand that what's happening to them is abuse. They may not even understand that it's wrong.

There are 2 different types of child sexual abuse. These are called contact abuse and non-contact abuse: - 

Contact abuse involves touching activities where an abuser makes physical contact with a child. Examples of contact abuse can include:

  • sexual touching of any part of the body whether the child's wearing clothes or not
  • rape or penetration by putting an object or other body part inside a child's mouth, vagina or anus
  • forcing or encouraging a child to take part in sexual activity
  • making a child take their clothes off, touch someone else's genitals or masturbate.

Non-contact abuse involves non-touching activities. Examples of non-contact abuse can include:

  • encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
  • communicating indecent messages to a child 
  • not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
  • online abuse including making, viewing or distributing child abuse images
  • allowing someone else to make, view or distribute child abuse image 
  • showing pornography to a child.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child. It is sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them. Children who are emotionally abused are usually suffering another type of abuse or neglect at the same time but this is not always the case.

Because there is an element of emotional abuse in all other types of child abuse and neglect, it can be difficult to spot the signs and to separate what is emotional abuse from other types of abuse.

Examples of emotional abuse can include: 

  • humiliating or constantly criticising a child 
  • threatening, shouting at a child or calling them names
  • making the child the subject of jokes, or using sarcasm to hurt a child 
  • blaming, scapegoating
  • making a child perform degrading acts
  • pushing a child too hard or not recognising their limitations
  • exposing a child to distressing events or interactions such as domestic abuse or drug taking
  • failing to promote the child’s social development
  • not allowing them to have friends
  • persistently ignoring them
  • manipulating the child
  • never showing any emotions when interacting with the child.


Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child's basic needs and is the most common form of child maltreatment. A child may be left hungry or dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, supervision, medical or health care. A child may be put in danger or not protected from physical or emotional harm. They may not get the love, care and attention they need from their parents or their carers. 

Neglect is dangerous and can have serious and long-term damage.  It can be anything from leaving a child home alone to the very worst cases where a child dies from malnutrition or being denied the care they need. In some cases, it can cause permanent disabilities and even death.

Having one of the signs or symptoms below does not necessarily mean that a child is being neglected.  But if you notice multiple or persistent signs then it could indicate there is a problem and it could be serious.

Examples of neglect can include:

Poor appearance and hygiene

They may:

  • be smelly or dirty
  • have unwashed clothes 
  • seem hungry and have no food or means to feed themselves 
  • have frequent and untreated nappy rash in infants 
  • have inadequate clothing to keep them warm and dry

Health and Development Problems

They may have:

  • untreated injuries, medical and dental issues
  • repeated accidental injuries caused by lack of supervision
  • recurring illnesses or infections
  • skin sores, rashes, flea bites, scabies or ringworm
  • not given the appropriate medicine 
  • thin or swollen tummy
  • anemia
  • poor muscle tone or prominent joints 
  • tiredness 
  • poor language, communication or social skills.

Housing and family issues

They may be:

  • living in an unsuitable home environment e.g. dog mess being left 
  • left alone for a long time
  • taking on the role of carer for younger siblings or other family members.


Recruitment 217X145

Are you ready for a life changing career - Join us.

Coronavirus 101 Feature Bnr 217X145

FAQs to help you understand how we are policing the new restrictions.

Ask The Scottish Police Feature Bnr 217X145

The Ask the Police Scotland mobile app is available for Android or Apple iOS.