A policy is a collective agreed statement of beliefs. It exists to protect children, parents & staff. It is a course of action recommended or adopted by a service”


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Definitions/Signs & Symptoms

Child abuse can be difficult to identify and may present itself in many forms. It is important to stress that no one indicator should be seen as conclusive in itself of abuse; it may indeed indicate conditions other than abuse. All signs must be considered in the child’s social and family context.

Definitions of abuse as outlined in the Children First Publication are under the following headings: Neglect, Emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse.


Definition of Neglect

Neglect can be defined in terms of an omission, where the child suffers significant harm or impairment of development by being deprived of food, clothing, warmth, hygiene, intellectual stimulation, supervision and safety, attachment to and affection from adults, medical care. Neglect generally becomes apparent in different ways over a period of time rather than at one specific point. For instance, a child who suffers a series of minor injuries is not having his or her needs met in terms of supervision and safety. A child whose height or weight is significantly below average may be being deprived of adequate nutrition. A child who consistently misses school may be deprived of intellectual stimulation.

Harm can be defined as the ill-treatment or the impairment of the health or development of a child. Whether it is significant is determined by the childs health and development as compared to that which could reasonably be expected of a child of similar age.

Definition of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is normally to be found in the relationship between a parent / care-giver and a child rather than in a specific event or pattern of events. It occurs when a child's developmental need for affection, approval, consistency and security are not met. Unless other forms of abuse are present, it is rarely manifested in terms of physical signs or symptoms.

Definition of Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction or lack of interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or a person in a position of responsibility, power or trust.

Definition of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by another person for his or her gratification or sexual arousal or for that of others.

Children with Special Vulnerabilities

Certain children are more vulnerable to abuse than others. These include children with disabilities and children who, for one reason or another, are separated from parents or other family members and who depend on others for their care and protection. The same categories of abuse - neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse - may be applicable, but may take a slightly different form.



The following are indicators of neglect in a child

  • Wears soiled clothing or clothing that is significantly too small or large, or is often in need of repair

  • Seems inadequately dressed for the weather

  • Always seems to be hungry, hoards, steals or begs for food, comes to school with little or no food

  • Often appears listless and tired, with little energy

  • Frequently reports caring for younger siblings

  • Demonstrates poor hygiene, smells of urine or faeces, has dirty or decaying teeth

  • Seems emancipated or has a distended stomach (indicative of malnutrition)

  • Has unattended medical or dental problems, such as infected sores
  • Displaying apathy, unresponsive to affection

  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

  • Presents with frequent accidents and / or minor injuries

  • Growth not within the expected range

  • Signs of developmental delay, poor attention / concentration, lack of self confidence / poor self-esteem, low academic achievement (including erratic or non-school attendance)

  • Behavioural signs, e.g overactive, aggressive, poor coping skills, impulsive behaviour, indiscriminate friendliness, withdrawn, poor social skills development, bed-wetting, soiling or destructive behaviours, substance misuse, running away, sexual promiscuity, self-harm, offending behaviours.

Indicators of possible neglect in parental behaviour

It can be difficult to observe a situation and to know for certain whether neglect has occurred. Behaviours and attitudes indicating that a parent or other adult caregiver may be neglectful include if he or she:

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child

  • Seems apathetic or depressed

  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner

  • Abuses alcohol or drugs

  • Denies the existence of or blames the child for the childs problems in school or at home

  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless or burdensome

  • Looks to the child primarily for care, attention and/ or satisfaction of emotional needs:

Indicators of neglect in older children

Neglected children, even when older, may display a variety of emotional, psycho-social and behavioural problems, which may vary depending on the age of the child. Some of these include:

  • Displaying an inability to control emotions or impulses, usually characterised by frequent outbursts

  • Being quiet and submissive

  • Having difficulty learning in school and getting along with siblings or classmates

  • Experiencing unusual eating or sleeping behaviours

  • Attempting to provoke fights or solicit sexual interactions

  • Acting socially or emotionally inappropriate for their age

  • Being unresponsive to affection

  • Displaying apathy

  • Being less flexible, persistent and enthusiastic than non-neglected children

  • Demonstrating helplessness under stress

  • Having fewer interactions with peers than non-neglected children

  • Displaying poor coping skills

  • Acting highly dependent

  • Acting lethargic and lacklustre

  • Displaying self-abusive behaviour (e.g. suicide attempts or cutting themselves)

  • Exhibiting panic or dissociative disorders, attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Suffering from depression, anxiety or low self-esteem

  • Exhibiting juvenile delinquent behaviour or engaging in adult criminal activities

  • Engaging in sexual activities leading to teen pregnancy or fatherhood

  • Having low academic achievement

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs

Signs and Symptoms of Neglect

Abandonment or desertion

Malnourishment, lacking food, inappropriate food or erratic feeding

Children persistently being left alone without adequate care and supervision

Lack of warmth

Lack of adequate clothing

Exploited, overworked.

Lack of protection and exposure to danger including moral danger or lack of supervision appropriate to the child's age

Non-organic failure to thrive i.e. child not gaining weight not alone due to malnutrition but also due to emotional deprivation

Persistent failure to attend school

Failure to provide adequate care for the child's medical problems

Emotional Abuse

The following are indicators of Emotional Abuse

  • The imposition of negative attributes on a child, expressed by persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility or blaming

  • Conditional parenting in which the level of care shown to a child is made contingent on his or her behaviours or actions

  • Emotional unavailability of the child’s parent / carer

  • Unresponsiveness of the parent / carer and / or inconsistent or inappropriate expectations of the child

  • Unrealistic or inappropriate expectations of the child’s capacity to understand something or to behave and control himself or herself in a certain way

  • Under-or over-protection of the child

  • Failure to show interest in, or provide age-appropriate opportunities for, the child’s cognitive and emotional development

  • Use of unreasonable or over-harsh disciplinary measures

  • Exposure to domestic violence

  • Exposure to inappropriate or abusive material through new technology

The following are signs and symptoms of Emotional Abuse


Lack of attachment

Lack of praise and encouragement

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

Lack of comfort and love

Serious over-protectiveness

Lack of continuity of care (e.g. frequent moves)

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 expectations of a child's behaviour - relative to his/her age and stage of development

Physical Abuse

The following are indicators of Physical Abuse

  • Severe physical punishment

  • Beating, slapping, hitting or kicking

  • Pushing, shaking or throwing

  • Pinching, biting, choking or hair-pulling

  • Terrorising with threats

  • Observing violence

  • Use of excessive force in handling

  • Deliberate poisoning

  • Suffocation

  • Fabricated / induced illness

  • Allowing or creating a substantial risk of significant harm to a child

The Following are signs and symptoms of Physical Abuse




Damage to body organs

Swollen joints

Poisonings - repeated (prescribed drugs, alcohol)


Haemorrhages (retinal, subdural)

Failure to thrive



Sexual Abuse

The following are indicators of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse - Cases of sexual abuse principally come to light through:-

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

(b) the suspicions of an adult;

(c) due to physical symptoms.

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

Bed wetting, soiling

Noticeable and uncharacteristic change of behaviour

Pains, tummy aches, headaches with no evident physical cause

Hints about sexual activity

Bleeding from the genital areas

Age - inappropriate understanding of sexual behaviour

Difficulty/pain in passing urine/faeces

Inappropriate seductive behaviour

Uncharacteristic sexual play with peers/toys

Sexually aggressive behaviour with others

Unusual reluctance to join in normal activities which involve undressing, e.g. games/swimming

Mood change, e.g. child becomes withdrawn, fearful, acting out

Lack of concentration (change in school performance)

Skin disorders

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

School refusal

Separation anxiety

Loss of appetite, overeating, hiding food


Pains, tummy aches, headaches with no evident physical cause

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

Running away

Missing school or early school leaving

Drug, alcohol, solvent abuse

Eating disorders


Depression, Isolation and Anger

Suicide attempts

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