Protecting children from child abuse

Types of Abuse

There are four different types of abuse - neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse.

A child may be subjected to one or more forms of abuse at any given time.


Where a child's needs for food, warmth, shelter, nurturing and safety are not provided, to the extent that the child suffers significant harm.

Physical abuse

Where a child is assaulted or deliberately injured.

Emotional abuse

Where a child's needs for affection, approval and security are not being met and have not been met for some time by the parent or carer.

Sexual abuse

Where a child is used for the sexual gratification of another.

More detailed information is available in Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, produced by the Department of Health and Children (1999).


Possible signs of abuse

While the following may be indications of abuse, it's important to remember that there could be other explanations. Many of the 'signs' of abuse can also be signs of other difficulties. No one sign on its own should be seen as absolute proof that abuse has occurred.

It's important to note that some children may never give us any sign that they're being abused. Sometimes, a child will seem unaffected by an incident, but parents/guardians should still be alert for reactionsIt's always important to investigate unexplained changes in your child's behaviour.



Inadequate provision of food, clothing, shelter

Children persistently being left alone without adequate care and supervision

Exposure to danger

Persistent failure to attend school

Inadequate medical care

Exploited or overworked.

Physical abuse

Unexplained injuries such as bruising, burns, scalds, bites, marks

Untreated injuries and repeated fractures.

Emotional abuse

Persistent lack of praise, encouragement, love, attachment or stimulation

Rejection, serious over-protectiveness

Inappropriate non-physical punishment, e.g. locking in bedroom for long periods

Exposure to domestic violence

Inappropriate expectations of a child's behaviour

Constant verbal harassment through criticism, ridicule or threats

Every child who is neglected or abused sexually or physically is also emotionally abused.


Sexual abuse

Hints about sexual activity

Sexually explicit behaviour or play with toys or others

An understanding of sexual behaviour beyond their years, e.g. child may be able to explain sexual acts in detail or may draw pictures that have an explicit sexual content

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

Pain, itching, bruising, blistering, bleeding or infection in the genital area which may cause difficulty when walking or sitting.



Child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is often the most difficult form of abuse to detect because of the secrecy upon which it relies. It rarely involves just a single incident and usually occurs over a number of years. In many cases of sexual abuse, the victim is often made to feel guilty for what is happening to them.

Child sexual abuse can take many forms, from incidents such as indecent exposure and obscene phone calls to abuse involving full sexual intercourse. Even a seemingly minor incident might effect a child, and it's a mistake to assume that abuse is only serious when it involves intercourse.


Who are the victims?

Children can become victims of child sexual abuse at any age - from infancy to adolescence. Children are most at risk between the ages of four and eleven, and both sexes are equally at risk. Victims come from every social background. Children with disabilities are more vulnerable and may therefore be more at risk of abuse.


Who are the abusers?

The abuser may be male or female, of any age and of any social background. Many abusers that we know about are young men in their teens or early twenties.

A sexual abuser will normally try to develop a special relationship with a child - the child is targeted, groomed, tested and finally abused. Sexual abuse is habitual and compulsive. Most sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts, such as a family member, relative, baby-sitter or neighbour.


Behavioural signs and emotional problems which may indicate child abuse

  • Very aggressive or very withdrawn behaviour
  • Lack of concentration (change in school performance)
  • Bed-wetting, soiling, skin disorders, unexplained complaints (pains, headaches, etc.)
  • Nightmares, changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite
  • Excessive fear of adults
  • Difficulty in relating to adults or other children
  • Low self-esteem and poor self-confidence
  • Running away (common with adolescent victims).

Remember - no one sign on its own should be seen as absolute proof that abuse has occurred. It's always important to investigate unexplained changes in your child's behaviour. 


Effects of child abuse

The effects of child abuse differ from one individual to the next, and depend on the age of the victim, their relationship with the abuser, and the extent of the abuse. Perhaps the greatest long-term injury to a child is the sense of betrayal felt towards the person who has abused the child, particularly when the relationship between victim and abuser is a close one.

The effects of abuse may lie dormant for many years, and can often be triggered by events later in life, such as the onset of puberty, by marriage or by the birth of a child.

With treatment and counselling, most victims come to terms with the abuse and go on to lead normal lives.


Why doesn't the child tell someone?

Children can find it hard to tell because . . .

  • They may be bribed or threatened to keep the abuse secret
  • Sometimes children are led to believe that the abuse is normal and acceptable
  • They may not have the language to talk about what has happened
  • The abuser may try to make the child feel guilty or responsible for the abuse.

Sometimes children are not believed - it's assumed they're making up stories or imagining things. But children rarely make up stories about abuse.


What should you do if you suspect that a child is being abused?

It can be difficult to know whether or not your suspicions about child abuse are real. Before you act on them, you need to consider whether any alternative explanation might exist and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there any other reason why the child or parent might be behaving in a particular way?
  • Is there a pattern to this type of occurrence?
  • Did you or anyone else see what was happening?
  • Has the child said anything to indicate that he or she is being harmed?
  • Could the signs or injuries have been caused in some other way?

If you've considered these questions and are still concerned, it's likely that you have reasonable grounds to take some action. It's important to remember that everyone has a duty to protect children and to co-operate with professionals where necessary.


What should you do if a child tells about abuse?

  • Listen to the child. Don't probe or push the child for explanations
  • Accept that the child has had an upsetting experience. Don't deny the problem, no matter how difficult this may be
  • Control your feelings, stay calm and try not to panic
  • Comfort the child and reassure them that they are not to blame and were right to tell you about what happened
  • Act quickly - don't delay in getting help
  • If you think a child is being abused or is at risk from someone inside or outside the family, get in touch with the social worker or other health professional in your local H.S.E. centre. If it's an emergency and outside H.S.E. hours, you should report it to An Garda Siochana. Under the law, nobody will be penalised for making a report of child abuse to the Health Board or An Garda Siochana as long as the report is not malicious and their intentions are genuine.

The Department of Education and Science has issued guidelines to all teachers outlining procedures that should be followed if they suspect abuse or if they receive allegations or disclosures of abuse.


Adults who have experienced childhood abuse

Some readers may themselves have been abused as a child. Many will have coped well, especially when supported by family and friends. Adults who have experienced childhood abuse often find it necessary and helpful to talk to a supportive person - such as a professional counsellor - in a safe and confidential environment. There are several organisations providing support and advice on such counselling (a list of relevant organisations is included on our links page. Your local H.S.E. social worker can also advise you.

Remember - with help, children can recover from bullying and abuse and lead normal happy lives.


What can parents do?

  • Keep the computer in a family room facing outwards where it can be more easily monitored by parents. This is probably the single most important thing you can do to help children be safe online.
  • Take an interest in what your children are doing online. Get them to tell you about the sites they are visiting and to show you how to use email and chat rooms if you don't already know. Find out what sites they access at school.
  • Talk to your children about what kind of Web sites and chat rooms are suitable for them to visit. Let them know that you will be monitoring their use of the net.
  • Limit access to the Internet to certain times
  • You can check the record of accessed sites in the temporary internet files folder or history folder. There are filtering programmes available, which control access to information on the Internet. These can be downloaded from sites such as


Make sure your children know the following safety rules:

  • Never to give out personal information such as their address, telephone number, parents' work address/telephone number, or the name and location of the school without permission.
  • Never to send photographs or anything else via email without first checking with a parent.
  • If they come across anything that makes them feel in any way uncomfortable they should turn off the monitor and tell a parent right away.
  • That people they chat to online are not always who they say they are. They should never agree to meet someone without first checking with their parents.
  • Never to answer any messages that are mean or upsetting.
  • Never to use bad language or send mean messages online.