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Health and Wellbeing
A Health and Well-being Wales Partner

Those who abuse children and young people often use multiple ways of controlling and exerting power over their young victims.

While professionals may talk about different forms of abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – the reality is that a lot of child abuse is a combination of these.

Parents who use verbal threats, emotional abuse and neglect to exert control over their children are likely to hit them too.

Adults who sexually abuse young people will certainly be subjecting them to emotional abuse and physical abuse too.

Like all abusers, child abusers are seeking power and control to get what they want, i.e. obedience, silence, labour or sexual gratification.

Being abused has a big impact on a child’s emotional well-being, and self-harming and risk-taking behaviour are not uncommon.

Physical abuse

This is when an adult hits, pushes, punches, kicks, burns or otherwise physically hurts a child, leaving them with bruises, burns, cuts, broken bones, or even unconscious.

Frequently, the abuse comes down to an adult’s inability to control their temper, e.g. thumping a young person in an argument, or vigorously shaking a crying baby.

Some forms of physical abuse may be premeditated with warnings issued, e.g. a parent threatens to lock a child in a cupboard if they annoy them.

Sometimes, a parent might sedate a child unnecessarily or give them medication for non-existent symptoms and illnesses.

Shaken baby syndrome is when a baby or young child is shaken forcefully. It can cause brain damage and even death.

Since March 2022, all forms of physical punishment of children – such as smacking, hitting, slapping and shaking – are illegal in Wales. This includes physical punishment by the child’s parents.

Emotional abuse
Emotional abuse occurs when a child or young person is continually criticised, dismissed, threatened or ignored by an adult they can expect to trust.

The abuse may include name-calling, harassment or bullying. It might also involve forcing a child or young person to do something against their wishes, e.g. engaging in sexual or criminal activities. Forced marriage is a form of abuse and is illegal in the UK.

Emotional abuse can be difficult to spot because there are usually few visible signs it is happening. It can be very subtle and its effects can build up over a long time.

The emotional abuse of a child or young person is not their fault, despite what their abusers may tell them.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a child or young person is forced or persuaded to take part in a sexual activity. There may be actual physical contact or the abuse might take place online, e.g. posting sexual images.

In the UK, the age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.

Even when a young person is over 16, coercing them into sexual activity is a criminal offence.

In some situations, the sexual activity may appear to be consensual; however, differences in power and influence can make it very difficult for the victim to say ‘no’ to the abuser. Incest and forced prostitution are forms of sexual abuse.

The NSPCC has more information on the sexual abuse of children.

Recognising the signs of child abuse

Children will often go to great lengths to hide the fact that they are being abused, especially if the abuser is a parent or close family member. They might be scared of the consequences of speaking out, or fear they won’t be believed.

Your suspicions should be aroused if a child has unexplained bruising, cuts, burns or other injuries, is unhappy, distressed or frightened, seems withdrawn (or aggressive), shows signs of physical neglect, starts bedwetting or having nightmares, tries to avoid their abuser or is having difficulty concentrating at school.

Stopping child abuse

Safeguarding children and young people from abuse is everyone’s responsibility.

If you suspect a child is being abused, report your concerns immediately (you do not need to leave your name). Don't wait until you are 100% certain – it could be too late. Your call could save a child’s life.

Ring the police on 101 or contact your council’s Local Safeguarding Team. In an emergency, call 999. If your concerns are about a child of school age, ask to talk to the school’s designated child protection teacher.

Social workers have a legal duty to investigate any concerns about a child or young person under 18 if they are made aware that they might be at risk from abuse or neglect.

More information

Live Fear Free is an all-Wales website providing advice about abuse, how to recognise it and who to turn to for support.

Stop It Now! supports parents and others to recognise and prevent the sexual abuse of children.

NSPCC Cymru has information about child protection. Call: 0808 800 5000.

Childline supports all children and young people under 19. Call: 0800 1111.

The Survivors Trust Cymru supports victims of rape and sexual abuse across Wales. Tel: 0808 801 0818.

Last updated: 05/01/2023