Spotting the signs of abuse and neglect

Our ParentLine Scotland helpline receives a number of calls from adults concerned for the welfare of a child. Among the concerns expressed are:

  • I think my daughter has been sexually abused.
  • I hear the neighbours hitting their kids.
  • How do you know if a child has been abused?
  • My son refuses to go to his Dad’s and won’t say why.

The majority of callers to the helpline want to take action to protect the children they are concerned about. Read more about what you can do if you have serious concerns about children.

What is abuse?

There are four main types of abuse:

  1. Physical abuse
    • Physical abuse is where children are hurt or injured. It includes hitting, kicking and beating. These can cause pain, cuts, bruising, broken bones and in extreme cases death.
  2. Emotional abuse
    • Emotional abuse includes degrading punishment, sarcasm, threats and not giving love and attention. All of these can undermine a child or young person’s confidence.
  3. Neglect
    • Neglect occurs when children’s basic needs such as food, warmth, medical care, clothing and hygiene are not met.
  4. Sexual abuse
    • Sexual abuse occurs when children are forced or persuaded into sexual acts or situations.

 Signs to look out for if you suspect a child is being abused:

  • Change in personality: withdrawn, nervous, mood swings etc.
  • Covering up body with layers of clothing – hiding/not allowing you to see.
  • Sexually explicit language and behaviour.
  • Low self-esteem/confidence.
  • Changes in behaviour – bed wetting, self-harm etc.

“Abusers usually appear as ordinary people, living ordinary lives.” 

Some abusers seek out positions of authority, which makes it even more difficult for young people to tell. The biggest power abusers have is the power of silence. Threats are often used and abusers can leave children feeling guilty and to blame for what is happening.

What are the effects of child abuse?

Child abuse can cause physical injury, but can also leave emotional scars. Abuse can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of guilt because children often blame themselves. 

In later life, adults abused as children may find it difficult to form relationships because they are unable to trust people. All forms of abuse have a harmful effect on children and young people. Protecting children is the responsibility of every adult: if you think a child is at risk or in danger, call ParentLine Scotland free, or contact your local social work department or the police.

Breaking barriers

Some of the callers to the helpline want to know where they should go to report their concerns. Other callers have negative perceptions of social work and need to build up their confidence before approaching them or police. On occasion, callers may be reluctant to get involved, especially if the abuser is a family member. ParentLine helps callers to overcome this reluctance and is committed to encouraging members of the public to take an active role in the protection of children.

In keeping with our commitment to make child protection everybody’s business, ParentLine’s principal aim is to encourage callers to take responsibility for acting on their concerns for a child’s safety. ParentLine will always pass on any details and refer any concerns about a child’s safety to the appropriate agency.

Sources of help

If you believe a child is in immediate danger - call the police on 999.

In many situations we know that it can be difficult to work out what to do. If you are concerned about a child, contact Children 1st's confidential helpline ParentLine Scotland. We will listen and help you work through what you need to do. We’ll also let you know what support is available.

We also provide web-chat during opening hours (Mon-Fri, 9am to 9pm). Click the button to launch web-chat: