A quick guide to signs and symptoms of neglect and child abuse

A quick guide to signs and symptoms of neglect and child abuse and what to do if you suspect it is happening.


If you suspect abuse, or have any concerns at all about the welfare of a child it is your responsibility to contact an SCA staff member or, if they are not available, a member of SCA’s Executive Committee – their contact details can be found on our website or in the front of our Volunteer Handbook. They will talk the matter over with you, and agree a course of action. Depending on what action is taken, this may be the end of your involvement – it is certainly the end of your responsibility.

The purpose of this leaflet is to help you recognise that something is wrong, and that the possibility of abuse should be considered. It is important to remember that the signs and symptoms mentioned here do not necessarily indicate that a child has been abused.

There are 4 kinds of abuse – a child may suffer as a result of more than one of them:

  1. Sexual abuse
  2. Physical abuse
  3. Emotional abuse
  4. Neglect

Any concerns about the welfare of the child must be reported as soon as possible to one of SCA’s office workers, or to an SCA Trustee. It is essential to keep any concerns confidential – volunteers must not discuss the situation with anyone other than an SCA worker or Trustee.


How to React if a Child talks to you about Abuse

  • Find a quiet place to talk.
  • Stay calm and reassure them that it is OK to talk.
  • Let them do the talking – do not ask leading questions or press for information.
  • Say how glad you are that the child has decided to tell you, and let them know that you believe what they are saying.
  • Do not promise to keep their problem secret – you cannot do this.
  • Say that you will do your best to support and protect them.
  • If appropriate, help them to tell their parent/guardian – if you are not comfortable with this, SCA will take on the responsibility to do so.

As soon as possible after the child has spoken to you, write down everything they have told you – date, sign it, and deliver it to the SCA office.
Please make sure you list the following information: child’s name, age and address; your name and address; description of cause for concern and any action taken.

Once the SCA Office staff or an SCA trustee has been informed, no further action is to be taken by the volunteer unless explicitly requested by them, or other professional persons (police, social workers, etc). Responsibility for further action lies with SCA.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Being withdrawn or isolated.
  • Being worried about clothing being removed.
  • Personality changes – for example becoming ‘clingy’ or insecure.
  • Behaving in an overly affectionate way, or being knowledgeable in a sexual way that is inappropriate to the age of the child.
  • Regressing to younger behaviour such as wetting themself, thumb sucking or bringing out discarded cuddly toys.
  • Drawing pictures that are sexually explicit.
  • Becoming over sensitive to criticism or trying to be ultra perfectly behaved.
  • Eating disorders such as compulsive eating or loss of appetite.
  • Losing the ability to concentrate.
  • Being uneasy or frightened in someone’s company, or not wanting to be alone with them.
  • Starting to have day/nightmares.

Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Unexplained recurrent bruises, injuries, bald patches or burns.
  • Can be aggressive or withdrawn.
  • Inability or refusal to explain injuries, or making improbable excuses for them.
  • Refusing to get undressed for swimming, gym lessons etc.
  • Being afraid of medical examinations.
  • Shying away from physical contact.
  • Habitual running away.
  • Tendency to be self-destructive.
  • Confirmation that they are being punished excessively.
  • Being frightened about a possible abuser being contacted.
  • A fear of physical contact (such as shying away if you raise you arm or touch them).

Signs of Emotional Abuse

  • Sudden onset of speech disorders.
  • Extremes of aggression or passivity.
  • Constant self loathing (“I am ugly/stupid/useless/bad” etc.).
  • Over-reaction to making mistakes.
  • Very fearful of any new situations.
  • Extreme lack of confidence.
  • Self mutilation/harm.
  • Onset of habits such as rocking back and forth, twisting hair, pinching themselves etc..
  • Lack of (or slow) mental, emotional or physical development.
  • Believing they deserve to be punished.

Signs of Neglect

  • Always hungry and/or looking for something to eat.
  • Too thin.
  • Constantly tired.
  • Poor personal hygiene.
  • Clothes dirty/in bad state of repair.
  • Has untreated medical problems.
  • Doesn’t have any friends.
  • Appears not to relate to parent/guardian.
  • Can be destructive/attention seeking.
  • Withdrawn.

Contact us with any concerns or questions