East Devon District Council

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Policy Safeguarding children policy

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6. What is child abuse?

A person may abuse or neglect a child or young person by inflicting harm or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children and young people may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting - by those known to them or, more rarely, by a stranger. It is generally accepted that there are four main forms of abuse.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child or young person.

Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer feigns the symptoms of, or deliberately causes ill health to a child or young person whom they are looking after. The situation is commonly described as factitious illness, fabricated or induced illness in children or ‘Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy’ after the person who first identified this situation. A person might do this because they enjoy or need the attention they get through having a sick child or young person.

Physical abuse, as well as being a result of a deliberate act, can also be caused through omission or the failure to act to protect.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill treatment of a child or young person such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child or young person’s emotional development. It may involve making a child or young person feel or believe that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person.

It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children or young people. It may also involve causing children or young people to frequently feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of a child or young person. 

Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of ill treatment of a child or young person, though it may occur alone.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child or young person is aware of, or consents to, what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative acts such as rape, buggery or oral sex or non-penetrative acts such as fondling.

Sexual abuse may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children or young people in looking at, or in the production of, child abuse imagery or watching sexual activities, or encouraging children or young people to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.

Boys and girls can be sexually abused by males and/or females, by adults and by other young people. This includes people from all different walks of life.


Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child or young person’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child or young person’s health or development. It may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, shelter and clothing, leaving a young child home alone or the failure to ensure that a child or young person gets appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child or young person’s basic emotional needs.