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What is child abuse?

This advice applies to England

This page tells you what child abuse means, and what the effects can be.

What is child abuse?

There is no clear legal definition of ‘child abuse’ but there are laws to protect children from harm. For example local authorities and certain other agencies or organisations that come into contact with children have a legal duty to protect them if they are:

  • under 18, and
  • suffering, or are likely to suffer, significant harm.

Harm to a child means ill treatment or damage to their health or development. Here are some examples of things which would cause harm and where a child would need protection.


Neglect is the on-going failure to meet a child's basic physical needs or psychological needs, or both. Neglect can happen during pregnancy because of the mother’s substance abuse, or if a father has been violent to a mother during pregnancy. Once a child is born, neglect may happen if a parent:

  • doesn't provide adequate food, clothing and shelter. This would include throwing a young person out of the family home
  • fails to protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger
  • doesn’t supervise a child properly. This would include making inadequate childcare-arrangements
  • doesn't allow the child access to appropriate medical care or treatment.

It may also include neglect of a child's basic emotional needs.

The neglect could be intentional or unintentional, and, if assessing a child for neglect, attention should be paid to both parents, not just the mother.

Physical injury

This could be threat of injury, or an actual physical injury, such as hitting or shaking a child.

Emotional abuse

This is treatment which causes serious damage to a child's emotional development.

Examples include:

  • constant or unjust punishment
  • withholding affection
  • telling a child that they are worthless
  • not giving a child opportunities to express their views
  • preventing a child from taking part in normal social interaction
  • letting a child see or hear the ill-treatment of someone else, for example, in a domestic violence situation
  • serious bullying, including cyber bullying, causing the child to feel frightened or in danger

All forms of abuse involve some emotional ill-treatment. The abuse could be intentional or unintentional.

Sexual abuse

This is where a child is made to take part in sexual activities, whether or not they know what’s happening and whether or not there is a threat of violence. It may involve:

  • physical contact, for example, inappropriate touching or sexual assault
  • non-contact activities, such as showing children pornographic images or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet)
  • using young people in prostitution. All young people under 18 used in prostitution are victims of child sexual abuse
  • female genital mutilation.

Domestic abuse

If a child sees or hears domestic violence or abuse between their parents, this could, in itself, amount to child abuse. If you’re an adult victim of domestic abuse, and you aren’t willing to take action to protect yourself, this could lead the local authority having concerns about the harm this could cause your children. If the local authority is already investigating possible concerns about abuse of your child, it’s very important for you to tell them about the domestic abuse. This is so you can get the protection that both you and your child need.

The effects of child abuse

As well as the obvious short-term effects, child abuse can lead to long-term and serious damage to a child. For example, it can lead to long-standing physical and mental health difficulties such as depression, eating disorders, substance misuse and self-harm. Children who have been abused may find it hard to trust other people – this could make it difficult for them to form healthy relationships in the future. For all these reasons, it’s very important to take steps to protect children from abuse.

Next steps

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