As adults, it’s vital that we know how to spot child abuse. Child abuse rates in the UK are difficult to quantify as they are known to be massively under-reported, however, a 2011 report by the NSPCC shows that at least one in five children have experienced severe maltreatment. This report is due to be updated in coming years.

We cannot leave it up to children to speak out. We have to be aware that abuse affects a child’s trust, self-esteem and it often takes away their voice . They often can’t or won’t open up, especially in the likely event that these abuses are being carried out by a caregiver or person of authority. In a 2016 survey , it was found around three in four victims of abuse or neglect did not tell anyone about it at the time it was happening.

Here are some key areas to look out for when spotting signs of child abuse, and what you can do to safeguard vulnerable children :


Look out for a change of behaviour . If the child used to be playful and is now quiet, or used to be co-operative and is now disruptive, this can be an indicator of a change in the child’s life. They may become extremely withdrawn, sullen or have sudden outbursts, which will often show in their interactions with friends. They may not want to participate in activities or could be secretive about their online communications .

Children who have experienced trauma usually exhibit anxious behaviours and seem on high alert, especially around triggers such as witnessing violent media. They could become exceptionally disobedient or even overly obedient, which is a subtle sign worth noting.


If a child appears consistently unclean, smells unwashed, wears shabby or old clothing, or seems to be in need of a haircut, these could be signs of neglect. They could also be hiding physical abuse by refusing to change clothes in front of other people or, for example, wearing long sleeves in the summer. Bruises (especially if they are in clusters), welts, cuts or broken bones are red flags that should put you on alert.>


Abuse leads to low confidence and self-esteem in many young people. This may have knock-on effects, causing speech problems, developmental delays and immaturity, emotional and otherwise.

A child might also display disproportionate knowledge around mature subjects compared to their performance elsewhere. This could include sexual knowledge, or even knowledge on how to parent, as they may be compensating for parental neglect by pseudo-parenting younger siblings.

Physical illness or body issues

Pay attention if a child frequently reports stomach-aches or headaches, appears over or under weight, doesn’t participate in physical activity or misses school a lot. These can be signs of illness or a mental health issue, but they are also indicators of the stress caused by abuse. Speak to the child and make sure you don’t assume the cause of their symptoms.

More specifically, it can be a sign of sexual abuse if a child seems to experience pain or itching around the groin that makes it difficult for them to sit.

How to safeguard vulnerable children

Remember, child abuse is everyone’s business. Speak to the child if you suspect a safeguarding issue. Keep a record, diary or body map to document your reasons for suspecting abuse. If you are uncertain, perhaps get another person’s input. Ultimately, of course, contact the NSPCC helpline and report your suspicions to the relevant authorities.

Education will ensure that you have the right tools to become part of the solution for safeguarding children. At Me Learning, we offer online courses to raise awareness and help people and organisations get the up-to-date training they need.>

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