Recognising and responding to abuse

Last updated: 02 Sep 2018

It can be very hard for children and young people to speak out about abuse. Often they fear there may be negative consequences if they tell anyone what's happening to them.

Some may delay telling someone about abuse for a long time, while others never tell anyone, even if they want to.

It's vital that children and young people are able to speak out and that whoever they tell takes them seriously and acts on what they've been told.

Even if a child doesn’t tell someone verbally about what’s happened to them, there may be other indicators that something is wrong. People who work with children need to be able to recognise the signs and know how to respond appropriately.

Identifying concerns

Identifying concerns


Disclosure is the process by which children and young people start to share their experiences of abuse with others. This can take place over a long period of time – it is a journey, not one act or action.

Children may disclose directly or indirectly and sometimes they may start sharing details of abuse before they are ready to put their thoughts and feelings in order.

It takes extraordinary courage for a child to go through the journey of disclosing abuse.

Not all disclosures will lead to an 'official allegation' of abuse or a case being taken to court, but all disclosures should be taken seriously.

It is vital that anyone who works with children and young people knows how to provide them with the support they need if they have experienced abuse.

How disclosure happens

Children and young people may disclose abuse in a variety of ways, including:

  • directly– making specific verbal statements about what’s happened to them
  • indirectly – making ambiguous verbal statements which suggest something is wrong
  • behaviourally – displaying behaviour that signals something is wrong (this may or may not be deliberate)
  • non-verbally – writing letters, drawing pictures or trying to communicate in other ways.

Sometimes children and young people make partial disclosures of abuse. This means they give some details about what they’ve experienced, but not the whole picture. They may withhold some information because of:

  • fear that they will get in trouble with or upset their family
  • wanting to deflect blame in case of family difficulties as a result of the disclosure
  • feelings of shame and guilt.

When children do speak out it is often many years after the abuse has taken place (McElvaney, 2015).

Spotting the signs of abuse

Children and young people who have been abused may want to tell someone, but not have the exact words to do so. They may attempt to disclose abuse by giving adults clues, through their actions and by using indirect words (Allnock and Miller, 2013; Cossar et al, 2013).

Adults need to be able to notice the signs that a child or young person might be distressed and ask them appropriate questions about what might have caused this.

> Read our factsheet on the definitions and signs of child abuse 

Child protection training can help increase adults' confidence in recognising the indicators of abuse and understanding the different ways a child might try to share what they have experienced.

> See our child protection training courses

You should never wait until a child or young person tells you directly that they are being abused before taking action. Instead, ask the child if everything is OK or discuss your concerns with your organisation’s designated safeguarding lead, or the NSPCC helpline.

Waiting for a child to be ready to speak about their experiences could mean that the abuse carries on and they, or another child, are put at further risk of significant harm (Cossar et al, 2013).

Not taking appropriate action quickly can also affect the child’s mental health. They may feel despairing and hopeless and wonder why no-one is helping them. This may discourage them from seeking help in the future and make them distrust adults.

Helping children disclose abuse

It’s important to create an environment where children and young people are comfortable about speaking out if anything is worrying them. They need to:

  • be able to recognise abuse and know it is wrong
  • know who they can talk to about it.

The people they choose to disclose to need to listen, understand and respond appropriately so the child gets the help, support and protection they need.

Talking PANTS (the underwear rule) is a simple way to talk to children as young as four about staying safe from sexual abuse. It helps children to:

  • name their body parts and know which parts should be private
  • know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch
  • understand they have the right to say "no"
  • think about who they trust and who they can ask for help.

> See the PANTS resources for schools and teachers

> Find Talk PANTS resources for parents on the NSPCC website

Our Speak out Stay safe service for primary schools helps children understand abuse in all its forms and know how to protect themselves.

> Find out more about Speak out Stay safe

Our Childline service offers children and young people confidential help and advice. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or find advice on the Childline website.

> Visit the Childline website

> Download or order Childline posters and wallet cards

Non-biased approach

It’s important that a child who is trying to disclose abuse, feels listened to and that they are being taken seriously. But there can be a risk that if professionals just believe the child’s account without thoroughly investigating the situation, this can lead to unfair bias against the alleged abuser as formal investigations progress (Child Protection Resource, 2018; Transparency Project, 2018).

It’s important to maintain an unbiased approach when responding to disclosures and follow your organisation’s procedures to ensure each case is treated in a fair and transparent manner, and that the child gets the protection and support that they need.


Responding to abuse

In a situation where a child discloses abuse, there are a number of steps that should be taken.

  • Listen carefully to the child. Avoid commenting on the matter or showing reactions like shock or disbelief which could cause the child to retract or stop talking.
  • Let them know they’ve done the right thing. Reassurance can make a big impact on a child who may have been keeping the abuse secret.
  • Tell them it’s not their fault. Abuse is never the child’s fault and they need to know this.
  • Say you will take them seriously. A child could keep abuse secret in fear they won’t be taken seriously. They’ve spoken out because they want help and trust that someone will listen to and support them.
  • Don’t talk to the alleged abuser. Confronting the alleged abuser about what the child’s told you could make the situation a lot worse for the child.
  • Explain what you’ll do next. If age appropriate, explain to the child that this will need to be reported to someone who will be able to help.
  • Don’t delay reporting the abuse. The sooner the abuse is reported after the child discloses the better. Report as soon as possible so details are fresh in the mind and action can be taken quickly.

Encouraging children and young people to seek help and support

Many children and young people will seek help because they know where to go and believe that it will make a difference.

Others may not have the confidence to seek support, or be too scared to ask for help. They may not get the help they need until they reach crisis point (Garvey et al, 2009).

Make it as easy as you can for young people to find and take up the offer of help.

  • Reinforce positive messages about those who seek help – seeking help is a sign of strength.
  • Encourage parents to support their children in seeking help.
  • Be positive about young people, their capacity for change and their resilience.
  • Listen to the people you help – improve your services using feedback from service users.
  • Shout about your work – lack of awareness is a significant barrier to young people seeking help.
  • See the whole person – engage with young people both in terms of their strengths and their weaknesses.
  • Build trust – treat young people with respect.
  • Empower young people to find their own solutions.
  • Help young people to help each other – equip young people with the skills and tools to support their friends/peers and family members.
  • Consider the role of new technologies – these should be complementary to other ways of supporting young people (Garvey et al, 2009).

Through Childline, children and young people can access a range of support including:

  • information and advice
  • online and telephone counselling
  • peer support message boards
  • therapeutic tools. 

> Visit the Childline website

Making notes

It’s important to keep accurate and detailed notes on any concerns you have about a child. You will need to share these with your nominated child protection lead. Include:

  • the child’s details (name, age, address)
  • what the child said or did that gave you cause for concern (if the child made a verbal disclosure, write down their exact words)
  • any information the child has given you about the alleged abuser.

For more information about child protection and how to record concerns, sign up for one of our child protection elearning courses.

Reporting concerns

If a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.

If a child is not in immediate danger:

  • Follow your organisation’s safeguarding policies and procedures as soon as possible. These should provide clear guidelines on the steps you need to take if a child discloses abuse. They will state who in your organisation has responsibility for safeguarding or child protection and who you should make your report to.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police. They will assess the situation and take the appropriate action to protect the child.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you, give you expert advice and take action to protect the child as appropriate. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

If a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm, you can share information with appropriate agencies or professionals without the child’s or their parent’s consent.

If your organisation doesn’t have a clear safeguarding procedure or you’re not comfortable with how your organisation has responded to your report, contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.

> Find out about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website

Further information

> Find out more about reporting abuse and how the children protection systems work in each UK nations

> Find out more about managing allegations of abuse against a member of staff or volunteer

Mandatory reporting

Mandatory reporting

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

It is illegal to carry out FGM in the UK. It is also a criminal offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to perform FGM overseas or take their child abroad to have FGM carried out.

In England and Wales, regulated health and social care professionals and teachers must make a report to the police, if, in the course of their duties:

  • they are informed by a child under the age of 18 that they have undergone an act of FGM
  • they observe physical signs that an act of FGM may have been carried out on a child under the age of 18.

In Wales, professionals who identify cases of FGM need to make a report to both the police and the local authority.

> Find out about FGM

Duty to report in Wales

Health and social care professionals and teachers are required to inform the local authority if they have reasonable cause to suspect a child within the local authority’s area is at risk of experiencing abuse, neglect or other types of harm.

> More information about reporting concerns and the child protection system in Wales


The Whistleblowing Advice Line offers free advice and support to professionals with concerns about how child protection issues are being handled in their own or another organisation.

Contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line on:

Contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line if:

  • your or another organisation doesn’t have clear safeguarding procedures to follow
  • concerns aren’t dealt with properly or may be covered up
  • a concern that was raised hasn’t been acted upon
  • you are worried that repercussions are likely to arise if you raise a concern.

This applies to incidents that happened in the past, are happening now, or may happen in the future.

> Find out more about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website

References and resources

References and resources 

Allnock, D. and Miller, P. (2013) No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. London: NSPCC.

Child Protection Resource (2018) Mind your language – what’s the problem with ‘disclosure’?

Cossar, J. et al (2013) ‘It takes a lot to build trust’. Recognition and telling: developing earlier routes to help for children and young people (PDF). London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Garvey et al (2009) Help-seeking behaviour in young adults. London: NFP Synergy.

McElvaney, R. (2015) Disclosure of child sexual abuse: delays, non-disclosure and partial disclosure. What the research tells us and implications for practice. Child Abuse Review, 24: 159-169.

The Transparency Project (2018) Things children say – disclosure, allegations and why language matters.

Further reading

For further reading about parental mental health, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords “disclosure”, “child abuse identification”, “child abuse reporting”, “reporting laws”, “whistleblowing”.

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.