Child abuse and neglect

Child maltreatment is any action causing potentially significant harm to a child or young person which often occurs within the context of relationships of power and trust. Maltreatment can be initiated by an adult or a child or young person. It can involve physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse; neglect or exploitation.

Research from the NSPCC estimated that 5.9% of children under 11, 18.6% of 11 to 17-year-olds and 25.3% of 18 to 24-year-olds had experienced severe maltreatment by a parent or carer at some point in childhood. However, these findings are now more than 10 years old.

Studies consistently show that only a minority of children and young people who are maltreated are identified. We also know that many children and young people experience more than one type of maltreatment at the same time.

Types of abuse

Types of abuse include:

  • physical
  • sexual – including child sexual exploitation
  • psychological or emotional
  • neglect
  • violence in the home
  • verbal or emotional abuse
  • bullying
  • racial harassment and discrimination
  • female genital mutilation

Types of abuse and maltreatment may occur simultaneously and overlap.

You can find an overview of the types of abuse faced by children in this guide for practitioners and on the NSPCC website.

The impact of maltreatment on mental health

Maltreatment in childhood can have long lasting consequences, impacting a child or young person’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Schools often see the knock-on effects of abuse, as distress is frequently communicated through children and young people’s behaviour and through their inability to focus in school.

Studies following children over time show that childhood maltreatment is associated with increased risk of later mental health problems, difficulties in personal and social relationships, as well as increased risk of new stressful experiences, including repeated abuse. These have been associated with adaptations in brain structure and function. There is no convincing evidence that specific forms of maltreatment have specific outcomes. However, the more adverse experiences a child has, the greater the chance they will struggle and have poorer life chances as adults.

Maltreatment is one example of a major adverse childhood event (ACE).

Child abuse and safeguarding

When a child or young person has experienced maltreatment, their basic needs (safety, belonging, trust, survival, etc.) are often not met and they may find it difficult to learn. School staff can help children and young people move forward in a number of ways, by: 

  • Making sure that pupils’ basic needs are met consistently and reassuringly at school, and that they feel safe and valued.
  • Creating a nurturing classroom climate that fosters caring, appreciation of differences, consistent rules and boundaries, and recognition of small successes.

Identifying the signs

It can be difficult to identify when a child or young person is being maltreated. Signs are not always obvious and a child or young person may hide things or not understand that what is happening is abuse. Studies indicate that only a minority of children and young people actually disclose abuse.

However, children and young people will often communicate experiences in other ways, with their responses dependent on the type, severity and extent of their abuse, their previous experiences of abuse/trauma and the balance of strengths and risk factors in their lives. 

Signs of abuse or maltreatment can include:

  • Behaviour changes; becoming aggressive, challenging, excessive or early risk taking, or being withdrawn.
  • Struggling in school – concentration difficulties or being tired/hungry.

What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

 

When a child or young person has experienced maltreatment, their basic needs (safety, belonging, trust, survival, etc.) are often not met and they may find it difficult to learn. School staff can help children and young people move forward in a number of ways, by: 

  • Making sure that pupils’ basic needs are met consistently and reassuringly at school, and that they feel safe and valued.
  • Creating a nurturing classroom climate that fosters caring, appreciation of differences, consistent rules and boundaries, and recognition of small successes.
  • Being approachable. Helping children and young people trust and open up by noticing and connecting with them; by listening attentively, supportively and sensitively when a child or young person discloses abuse.
  • Believing children and young people and not blaming them.
  • Being alert, watchful and questioning – particularly to what pupils might be trying to communicate via their play or behaviour.
  • Investing in patient relationships with children or young people who have been abused and who may have attachment or trust issues.
  • Helping children or young people exposed to, or facing maltreatment, not only through broader 
  • Helping children and young people access extra support. They may well need extra care through pastoral/counselling, or through referral to the school nurse, accessing helplines or discussion with your SEN/ASN/ALN lead. Some children and young people will need referral onto community-based support and may need trauma-based expertise (e.g. early help, voluntary sector counselling or specialist CAMHS support).
  • If appropriate, motivating some parents/carers to link up with additional support themselves – in the best interests of their child’s education and mental health.

Top tips

Stay calm

Remain calm, focussed and stay with what the child or young person is saying or doing. Only intervene if they are putting themselves or others at risk.

Avoid asking leading questions or probing

Ask ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ questions. ‘How did you get that bruise?’ Be as accurate as possible in your recording and pay particular attention to key words that the child or young person uses. Avoid interpretation and stick to facts and observations. 

Be honest

Do not promise confidentiality. Let the child or young person know you will have to share what they have told you with the designated person for safeguarding in school. Do not accept any retraction or backtracking from the child or young person. If it has been said it needs to be reported.

Concerned about a child or young person?

If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.

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