Recognising and responding to abuse

Last updated: 15 May 2019
Introduction

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.

This page outlines best practice for recognising and responding to abuse and some of the issues which may arise when working with children who have been abused.

You should use this information when writing your group or organisation’s child protection procedures.

Identifying concerns

Identifying concerns

Disclosure

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 a formal report of abuse or a case being made 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).

Barriers to disclosure

Some children and young people are reluctant to seek help because they feel they don’t have anyone to turn to for support.

They may have sought help in the past and had a negative experience, which makes them unlikely to do so again.

They may also:

  • feel that they will not be taken seriously
  • feel too embarrassed to talk to an adult about a private or personal problem
  • worry about confidentiality
  • lack trust in the people around them (including parents) and in the services provided to help them
  • fear the consequences of asking for help
  • worry they will be causing trouble and making the situation worse
  • find formal procedures overwhelming

(Mental Health Foundation and Camelot Foundation, 2006).

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

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

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.
  • 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

Responding to disclosures

Responding to disclosures

We carried out research to find out how adults can better respond to a child who is disclosing abuse (Baker et al, 2019). We found three key interpersonal skills that help a child feel they are being listened to and taken seriously: 

  • show you care, help them open up: Give your full attention to the child or young person and keep your body language open and encouraging. Be compassionate, be understanding and reassure them their feelings are important. Phrases such as ‘you’ve shown such courage today’ help.
  • take your time, slow down: Respect pauses and don’t interrupt the child – let them go at their own pace. Recognise and respond to their body language. And remember that it may take several conversations for them to share what’s happened to them.
  • show you understand, reflect back: Make it clear you’re interested in what the child is telling you. Reflect back what they’ve said to check your understanding – and use their language to show it’s their experience.

> Download our free poster to help you remember these skills and embed them in your practice 

If a child tells you they are experiencing abuse, it’s important to reassure them that they’ve done the right thing in telling you. Make sure they know that abuse is never their fault.

Never talk to the alleged perpetrator about the child’s disclosure. This could make things a lot worse for the child.

Non-biased approach

It’s vital that any child who is trying to disclose abuse feels that they are being listened to and 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).

This means 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.

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.

> Find out more about how people who work or volunteer in schools should respond to concerns about abuse

> Contact the NSPCC helpline to get advice or share your concerns about a child

Information sharing

Information sharing

Why information sharing is important

Sharing information about a child’s wellbeing helps professionals build a clearer picture of the child’s life and gain a better understanding of any risks the child is facing.

Information sharing helps to ensure that an individual receives the right services at the right time and prevents a need from becoming more acute and difficult to meet (DfE, 2018).

General principles of best practice for information sharing are outlined below. Refer to your organisation’s procedures as well as local multi-agency arrangements to ensure you are following the information sharing processes that are most appropriate for your role.

> Find out more about best practice for multiagency working

When to share information

Timely information sharing is key to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.

People who work with children, whether in a paid or voluntary role, may need to share information about the children and families they are involved with for a number of reasons. These include:

  • you are making a referral to arrange additional support for someone in the family
  • someone from another agency has asked for information about a child or family
  • someone in the family has asked to be referred for further help
  • a statutory duty or court order requires information to be shared
  • you are concerned that a child or a member of their family may be at risk of significant harm
  • you think a serious crime may have been committed or is about to be committed which involves someone in the family.

You must always have a clear and legitimate purpose for sharing a child’s personal information. Keep a record of the reasons why you are sharing or requesting information about a child or their family.

You should also make sure you are not putting a child’s safety and wellbeing at risk by sharing information about them.

Some professionals have a legal duty to share information relating to safeguarding concerns, for example concerns around female genital mutilation (FGM) or the duty to report in Wales.

> Find out about reporting FGM 
> Find out more about reporting concerns and the child protection system in Wales

Always seek consent to share information about a child and their family. However if consent isn’t given, you can still share information with relevant professionals under certain circumstances, for example if you are preventing a child from significant harm.

Find out more about getting permission to share information in the Consent tab.

What information to share

You need to decide what specific information is appropriate to share and who to share it with.

  • Prioritise the safety and wellbeing of the child and anyone else who may be affected by the situation.
  • Make sure you share the information quickly and securely. The sooner you report your concerns the better. This means the details will be fresh in your mind and action can be taken quickly.
  • Identify how much information should be shared. This will depend on the reasons for sharing it.
  • Use language that is clear and precise. Different agencies may use and understand terminology differently.
  • Make sure the information you are sharing is accurate. Make it clear what information is factual and what is based on opinion (yours or other people’s).

Facts and opinions

When working with children and families you will gather information from a variety of sources. How you interpret this information can depend on:

  • any previous information received
  • your knowledge of research and theory
  • your own frame of reference.

When recording information you should be as factual as possible. If you need to give your own or somebody else’s opinion make sure it is clearly differentiated from fact. You should identify whose opinion is being given and record their exact words.

> Contact the NSPCC helpline to share your concerns about a child

Consent

Seeking consent to share information

Children should be given the opportunity to decide whether they agree to their personal information being shared. If a child doesn’t have the capacity to make their own decisions ask their parent or carer (unless doing so would put the child at risk of harm).

The Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines help professionals to assess whether a child is mature enough to make decisions.

> See our guidance on the Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines

You should always seek consent to share information about an adult.

Tips for getting consent:

  • be open and honest
  • make sure the person you’re asking for consent understands what information will be shared and why
  • explain who will see the information and what it will be used for
  • make sure the person you’re asking for consent understands the consequences of their information not being shared
  • get the consent in writing, in case there are any disputes in the future. If it’s only given verbally, make a written record of this
  • make sure the person knows they can withdraw consent at any time.

Sharing information without consent

If consent is refused or if you’re unable to seek consent, you can still share information with relevant professionals if this is in the public interest.

This includes protecting children from significant harm and promoting the welfare of children. 

When deciding whether to share information without consent, you should consider each case individually.

  • Decide if the need to share information is in the public interest and whether it outweighs the need to maintain confidentiality.
  • Consider all the implications of sharing the information, for example if you are sharing sensitive details about a person's life.

If you're not sure what to do, contact the NSPCC helpline for advice.

Make sure you are following the relevant legislation and guidance. More information about this is available in the Legislation and guidance tab.

If you’re sharing information without consent keep a written record explaining:

  • what steps you took to get consent
  • the person’s reasons for not giving consent (if known)
  • why you felt it was necessary to share information without consent.

Pass a copy of this record on to the agency/agencies you’re sharing the information with.

> Contact the NSPCC helpline to share your concerns about a child

Confidentiality

Never promise a child that you will keep the things they’re telling you a secret. Explain that you need to share what they’ve told you with someone who will be able to help.

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online.

Reporting concerns

Reporting concerns

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 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 report your concerns to.

> Find out more about the role of the nominated child protection lead

  • 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 help@nspcc.org.uk. 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.

> Find out more about how people who work or volunteer in schools should respond to concerns about abuse

If you have made a verbal referral to local children's services you should follow this up with a written referral as soon as possible, ideally within 48 hours.

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

>Find out more about how people who work or volunteer in schools should respond to concerns about abuse

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

Obligation to report in the Catholic church

Under a law issued by Pope Francis in May 2019, all clerics in the Catholic Church are obliged to inform Church authorities if they are aware of or suspect sexual abuse, sexual assault or a cover-up in the management of abuse. Anyone experiencing and reporting abuse will be protected. Dioceses or Eparchies must establish a public and accessible system for reporting, and laypeople are encouraged to use these systems to report violence and abuse.

Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is when someone reports wrongdoing that is in the public interest. This is usually something they’ve seen at work but not always. The wrongdoing might have happened in the past, be happening now, or be something the whislteblower is concerned may happen in the near future (Gov.uk, 2018).

Our 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

Legislation and guidance

Responding to concerns and sharing information

Key legislation

Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (PDF) states that all children have a right to privacy.

The convention also states that children should be protected from abuse and that their best interests should be prioritised when making decisions that affect them.

This means that, if a child is at risk of harm, it is in their best interests for an adult to share information with relevant agencies – even without the child’s consent.

In England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Data Protection Act 2018 sets out how personal information should be processed under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The introduction of GDPR does not affect the principle that adults should share child protection information with other agencies in order to keep a child safe.

The Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill was published in June 2017. It will introduce a duty on public and other services to consider if the sharing of information will promote, support or safeguard the wellbeing of a child or young person.

Key guidance

Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect. It explains how practitioners should respond to concerns and how agencies should work together to protect children.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published a quality standard on child abuse and neglect. This describes how child abuse and neglect should be recognised, assessed and responded to by health and social care practitioners in England (NICE, 2019).

There is also specific guidance on data protection and sharing personal information.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has provided a Data sharing code of practice (PDF) to help UK organisations that need to share personal data (ICO, 2011).

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) provides guidance for sharing information relating to children’s services in Information sharing: advice for practitioners providing safeguarding services to children, young people, parents and carers (PDF) (DfE, 2018a).

In Northern Ireland, Chapter five of the Code of practice on protecting the confidentiality of service user information (PDF) by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), covers disclosing personal information relating to children (DHSSPS, 2012).

Guidance for schools

In England and Wales, the Data protection: toolkit for schools provides guidance on how schools should process and record personal information in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (DfE, 2018b).

In Northern Ireland, the Think data online resource hub hosts resources that schools can use to ensure they are GDPR compliant (Education Authority, 2018).

In ScotlandGetting it right for every child (GIRFEC): information sharing sets out guidance on information sharing for schools (Scottish Government, 2018).

Complaints and whistleblowing

If you are worried that your organisation or another organisation is not responding to or sharing child protection information appropriately, it’s vital that you share your concerns to keep children safe.

Legislation across the UK ensures that you shouldn’t be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’ (Gov.uk, 2018).

In England, Scotland and Wales, whistleblowers are protected by law under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.

In Northern Ireland, The Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 protects workers who ‘blow the whistle’ over wrongdoing.

The government provides guidance on whistleblowing for employees in the UK (Gov.uk, 2018).

Ofsted provides guidance on sharing concerns about children’s social care services in England (Ofsted, 2018).

In Wales, Estyn is responsible for inspections of maintained and independent schools, and should be contacted with any concerns about practices or procedures relating to safeguarding children or vulnerable adults (Estyn, 2018).

> Contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line if you have concerns over how child protection issues are being handled in your own or another organisation

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.

Baker, H. et al (2019) Let children know you’re listening: the importance of an adult’s interpersonal skills in helping to improve the child’s experiences of disclosure. 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.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2019) Child abuse and neglect: quality standard [QS179]. [Accessed 12/03/2019].

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

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online.

You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Elearning

Our online and face-to-face training courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from abuse and respond to disclosures:

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.