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Appendix 3 Signs and symptoms Signs and symptoms of Neglect


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Appendix 3 Signs and symptoms

  1. Signs and symptoms of Neglect

Child neglect is the most common category of abuse. A distinction can be made between ‘wilful’ neglect and ‘circumstantial’ neglect. ‘Wilful’ neglect would generally incorporate a direct and deliberate deprivation by a parent/carer of a child’s most basic needs, e.g. withdrawal of food, shelter, warmth, clothing, contact with others. ‘Circumstantial’ neglect more often may be due to stress / inability to cope by parents or carers.

Neglect is closing correlated with low socio-economic factors and corresponding physical deprivation. It is also related to parental incapacity due to learning disability additions or psychological disturbance.

The neglect of children is ‘usually a passive form of abuse involving omission rather than act of commission’ (Skuse and Bentovim 1994). It comprises ‘both a lack of physical caretaking and supervision and a failure to fulfil the developmental needs of the child in terms of cognitive stimulation’.

Child neglect should be suspected in cases of:

  • Abandonment or desertion;

  • Children persistently being left alone without adequate care and supervision;

  • Malnourishment, ,lacking food, inappropriate food or erratic feeding;

  • Lack of warmth;

  • Lack of adequate clothing;

  • Inattention to basic hygiene;

  • Lack of protection and exposure to danger, including moral danger or lack of supervision appropriate to child’s age;

  • Persistent failure to attend school;

  • Non-organic failure to thrive, i.e. Child not gaining weight due not only to malnutrition but also to emotional deprivation;

  • Failure to provide adequate care for the child’s medical and developmental problems;

  • Exploited overworked.

  1. Characteristics of Neglect.

Child Neglect is the most frequent category of abuse both in Ireland and internationally. In addition to being the most frequently reported type of abuse; neglect is also recognised as being the most harmful. Not only does neglect generally last throughout a childhood, it also has long-term consequences into adult life. Children are more likely to die from chronic neglect than from one instance of physical abuse. It is well established that severe neglect in infancy has a serious negative impact on brain development.

Neglect is associated with, but not necessarily cause by, poverty. It is strongly correlated with parental substance misuse, domestic violence and parental mental illness and disability.

Neglect may be categorised into different types (adapted from Dubowitz, 1999):

  • Disorganised / chaotic neglect: This is typically where parenting is inconsistent and is often found in disorganised and crisis-prone families. The quality of parenting is inconsistent, with a lack of certainty and routine, often resulting in emergencies regarding accommodation, finances and food. This type of neglect results in attachment disorders, promotes anxiety in children and leads to disruptive and attention-seeking behaviour, with older children proving more difficult to control and discipline. The home may be unsafe from accidental harm, with a high incident of accidents occurring.
  • Depressed or passive neglect: This type of neglect fits the common stereotype and is often characterised by bleak and bare accommodation, without material comfort, and with poor hygiene and little if any social and psychological stimulation. The household will have few toys and those that are there may be broken, dirty or inappropriate for age. Young children will spend long periods in cots, playpens or pushchairs. There is often a lack of food, inadequate bedding and no clean clothes. There can be a sense of hopelessness, coupled with ambivalence about improving the household situation. In such environments, children frequently are absent from school and have poor homework routines. Children subject to these circumstances are at risk of major developmental delay

  • Chronic Deprivation: This is most likely to occur where there is the absence of a key attachment figure. It is most often found in large institutions where infants and children may be physically well cared for, but where there is no opportunity to form an attachment with an individual carer. In these situations, children are health with by a range of adults and their needs are seen as part of the demands of a group of children. This form of deprivation will also be associated with poor stimulation and can result in serious developmental delays.

The following points illustrate the consequences of different types of neglect for children:

  • Inadequate food – failure to develop;

  • Household hazards – accidents;

  • Lack of attention to health – disease;

  • Inadequate mental health care – suicide or delinquency;

  • Inadequate emotional care – behaviour and educational;

  • Inadequate supervision – risk-taking behaviour;

  • Unstable relationship – attachment problems;

  • Unstable living conditions – behaviour and anxiety, risk of accidents;

  • Exposure to domestic violence – behaviour, physical and mental health;

  • Community violence – anti social behaviour.

3 Signs and symptoms of emotional neglect and abuse

Emotional neglect and abuse is found typically in a home lacking in emotional warmth. It is not necessarily associated with physical deprivation. The emotion needs of the children are not met; the parent’s relationship to the child may be without empathy and devoid of emotional responsiveness.

Emotional neglect and abuse occurs when adults responsible for taking care of children are unaware of and unable (for a range of reasons) to meet their children’s emotional and developmental needs. Emotional neglect and abuse is not easy to recognise because the effects are not easily observable. Skuse (1989) states that ‘emotional abuse refers to the habitual verbal harassment of a child by disparagement, criticism, threat and ridicule, and the inversion of love, whereby verbal and non-verbal means of rejection and withdrawal are substituted’.

Emotional neglect and abuse can be identified with reference to the indices listed below. However, it should be noted that no one indicator is conclusive of emotional abuse. In the case of emotional abuse and neglect, it is more likely to impact negatively on a children where there is a cluster of indices, where these are persistent over time and where there is a lack of other protective factors.

  • Rejection;

  • Lack of comfort and love;

  • Lack of attachment;

  • Lack of proper stimulation (e.g. fun and play)

  • Lack of continuity of care (e.g. frequent (e.g. frequent moves, particularly unplanned);

  • Continuous lack of praise and encouragement;

  • Serious over-protectiveness;

  • Inappropriate non-physical punishment (e.g. locking in bedrooms);

  • Family conflicts and/or violence;

  • Every child who is abused sexually, physically or neglected is also emotionally abused;

  • Inappropriate expectation of a child relative to his/her age and stage of development.

Children who are physically and sexually abused also suffer from emotional abuse.

4 Signs and symptoms of physical abuse

Unsatisfactory explanations, varying explanations, frequency and clustering for the following events are high indices for concern regarding physical abuse:

  • bruises (see below for more detail);

  • fractures;

  • swollen joints;

  • burns/scalds (see below for more detail);

  • abrasions/lacerations;

  • haemorrhages (retinal, subdural);

  • damage to body organs;

  • poisonings – repeated (prescribed drugs, alcohol);

  • failure to thrive;

  • coma/unconsciousness;

  • death.

There are many different forms of physical abuse, but skin, mouth and bone injuries are the most common.



Accidental bruises are common at places on the body where bone is fairly close to the skin. Bruises can also be found towards the front of the body, as the child usually will fall forwards.

Accidental bruises are common on the chin, nose, forehead, elbow, knees and shins. An accident-prone child can have frequent bruises in these areas. Such bruises will be diffuse, with no definite edges. Any bruising on a child before the age of mobility must be treated with concern.


Bruises caused by physical abuse are more likely to occur on soft tissues, e.g. cheek, buttocks, lower back, back, thighs, calves, neck, genitalia and mouth.

Marks from slapping or grabbing may form a distinctive pattern. Slap marks might occur on buttocks/cheeks and the outlining of fingers may be seen on any part of the body. Bruises caused by direct blows with a fist have no definite pattern, but may occur in parts of the body that do not usually receive injuries by accident. A punch over the eye (black eye syndrome) or ear would be of concern. Black eyes cannot be caused by a fall on to a flat surface. Two black eyes require two injuries and must always be suspect. Other distinctive patterns of bruising may be left by the use of straps, belts, sticks and feet. The outline of the object may be left on the child in a bruise on areas such as the back or thighs (areas covered by clothing).

Bruises may be associated with shaking, which can cause serious hidden bleeding and bruising inside the skull. Any bruising around the neck is suspicious since it is very unlikely to be accidentally acquired.. Other injuries may feature – ruptured eardrum/fractured skull. Mouth injury may be a cause of concern, e.g. torn mouth (frenulum) from forced bottle-feeding.

Bone injuries Children regularly have accidents that result in fractures. However, children’s bones are more flexible than those of adults and the children themselves are lighter, so a fracture, particularly of the skull, usually signifies that considerable force has been applied.


A fracture of any sort should be regarded as suspicious in a child under 8 months of age. A fracture of the skull must be regarded as particularly suspicious in a child under 3 years. Either case requires careful investigation as to the circumstances in which the fracture occurred. Swelling in the head or drowsiness may also indicate injury.

Burns Children who have accidental burns usually have a hot liquid splashed on them by spilling or have come into contact with a hot object. The history that parents give is usually in keeping with the pattern of injury observed. However, repeated episodes may suggest inadequate care and attention to safety within the house.


Children who have received non-accidental burns may exhibit a pattern that is not adequately explained by parents. The child may have been immersed in a hot liquid. The burn may show a definite line, unlike the type seen in accidental splashing. The child may also have been held against a hot object, like a radiator or a ring of a cooker, leaving distinctive marks. Cigarette burns may result in multiple small lesions in places on the skin that would not generally be exposed to danger. There may be other skin conditions that can cause similar patterns and expert paediatric advice should be sought.


Children can get bitten either by animals or humans. Animal bites (e.g. dogs) commonly puncture and tear the skin, and usually the history is definite. Small children can also bite other children.


It is sometimes hard to differentiate between the bites of adults and children since measurements can be inaccurate. Any suspected adult bite mark must be taken very seriously. Consultant paediatricians may liaise with dental colleagues in order to identify marks correctly.


Children may commonly take medicines or chemicals that are dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Aspects of care and safety within the home need to be considered with each event.


Non-accidental poisoning can occur and may be difficult to identify, but should be suspected in bizarre or recurrent episodes and when more than one child is involved. Drowsiness or hyperventilation may be a symptom.

Shaking violently

Shaking is a frequent cause of brain damage in very young children.

Fabricated/induced illness

This occurs where parents, usually the mother (according to current research and case experience), fabricate stories of illness about their child or cause physical signs of illness. This can occur where the parent secretly administers dangerous drugs or other poisonous substances to the child or by smothering. The symptoms that alert to the possibility of fabricated/induced illness include:

  1. symptoms that cannot be explained by any medical tests; symptoms never observed by anyone other than the parent/carer; symptoms reported to occur only at home or when a parent/carer visits a child in hospital;

  2. high level of demand for investigation of symptoms without any documented physical signs;

  3. unexplained problems with medical treatment, such as drips coming out or lines being interfered with; presence of unprescribed medication or poisons in the blood or urine.

5. Signs and symptoms of sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse often covers a wide spectrum of abusive activities. It rarely involves just a single incident and usually occurs over a number of years. Child sexual abuse most commonly happens within the family.

Cases of sexual abuse principally come to light through:

(a) disclosure by the child or his or her siblings/friends;

(b) the suspicions of an adult;

(c) physical symptoms.

Colburn Faller (1989) provides a description of the wide spectrum of activities by adults which can constitute child sexual abuse. These include:

Non-contact sexual abuse
  • ‘Offensive sexual remarks’, including statements the offender makes to the child regarding 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/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

  • Involving any touching of the intimate body parts. The offender may fondle or masturbate the victim, and/or get the victim to fondle and/or masturbate them. Fondling can be either outside or inside clothes. Also includes ‘frottage’, i.e. where offender gains sexual gratification from rubbing his/her genitals against the victim’s body or clothing.

Oral-genital sexual abuse

  • Involving the offender licking, kissing, sucking or biting 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’, involving the offender placing his penis between the child’s thighs.

Penetrative sexual abuse, of which there are four types

  • ‘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

  • Involves situations of sexual victimisation where the person who is responsible for 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 or in adolescence. However, children as young as 4 and 5 are known to be abused in this way.

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.

It is important to note that physical signs may not be evident in cases of sexual abuse due to the nature of the abuse and/or the fact that the disclosure was made some time after the abuse took place.

Carers and professionals should be alert to the following physical and behavioural signs:

  • Bleeding from the vagina/anus;

  • Difficulty/pain in passing urine/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/rash in 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/toys;
  • Unusual reluctance to join in normal activities that involve undressing, e.g. games/swimming.

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

  • Mood change where the child becomes withdrawn, fearful, acting out;

  • Lack of concentration, especially in an educational setting;

  • Bed wetting, soiling;

  • Pains, tummy aches, headaches with no evident physical cause;

  • Skin disorders;

  • Reluctance to go to bed, nightmares, changes in sleep patterns;

  • School refusal;

  • Separation anxiety;

  • Loss of appetite, overeating, hiding food.

Particular behavioural signs and emotional problems suggestive of child abuse in older children (aged 10+ years) include:

  • Depression, isolation, anger;

  • Running away;

  • Drug, alcohol, solvent abuse;

  • Self-harm;

  • Suicide attempts;

  • Missing school or early school leaving;

Eating disorders.

All signs/indicators need careful assessment relative to the child’s circumstances.

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