How abuse changes childhood

Abuse can derail a child’s development - having lasting effects into adulthood and society as a whole. Together, we can change that.

How we're changing lives for the better

How abuse happens

Abuse and neglect can happen to any child, in any family, in any home. It often happens over a period of time, rather than as a one-off event. 

It occurs most often in families who are under pressure or lack social support, and consequently struggle to raise their children. Severe, and often long-term problems, such as poor housing or poverty, can make it hard for people to cope with the challenges that life throws at them.  Sometimes children themselves struggle to treat other children as they should.

So abusers can be made. Their behaviour is shaped by the circumstances in which they live and by what they have experienced.

That’s not to say difficult circumstances will inevitably lead to abuse. People’s lives can take a different turn at any point. But circumstances such as these do make it more likely to happen.

Factors that can lead to abuse

  • Social isolation
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • poor housing
  • poverty
  • family conflict
  • mental illness
  • sexualisation of children
  • gender inequality
  • tolerance of violence
  • experience of abuse in childhood

Long-term effects on the child and society

As well as being an upsetting and horrible experience, abuse can have devastating effects on a child’s development, on their health physically, mentally and emotionally - as well as their relationships and education.

As the child grows into an adult, their earlier experiences mean they can find it harder to cope with life’s stresses.

A lack of coping skills or education may limit their ability to get a job or be a good parent. They may also develop mental illness, a substance dependency, criminal behaviour – or sadly become abusive themselves. 

So the experience of abuse as a child can have long-lasting affects into adulthood, leaving our whole society to face the consequences. 

But - with the right help - abuse can be prevented and people can recover from abuse and go to on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. 

Brains are built on our experiences

The video above explains how experiences in the first years of our lives affect how our brains form. Science tells us that the stress of abuse or neglect can damage the basic structures of a child’s developing brain. Without the right help, it can put them at risk of a lifetime of health problems, developmental issues and addiction. It’s up to us to make sure that children overcome these stresses and have the nurturing experiences they need for positive development.

How child abuse and neglect affects childhood and beyond

Sexual abuse

 A child’s brain is damaged by sexual abuse, impairing their ability to cope with emotions and stress. This can develop into serious mental illness in adulthood, leading to self-harm and suicide.

Sexual abuse...


Children more likely to take drugs and alcohol, run away from home or break the law. They also find it difficult to have healthy relationships – even with their own children.

Child neglect...

Domestic abuse

Children may suffer from depression, anxiety or emotional and behaviour problems. As they grown up, they are more likely to experience domestic abuse in their own relationships.

Domestic abuse...

Emotional abuse

Young children have problems eating, speaking, expressing feelings or gaining confidence. Over time, they may self-harm, develop eating disorders or other risky behaviour.

Emotional abuse...


Female genital mutilation can cause severe pain and infection to a young girl, and she may go on to have difficulties going to the loo, menstruating, having sex or with fertility. 

Female Genital Mutilation...

Physical abuse

Even though their initial injuries heal, they may suffer from brain damage, learning problems or post-traumatic stress, and turn to drug and alcohol abuse or criminal behaviour as adults.

Physical abuse...


Children may not feel confident enough to make friends or do well in school. In addition to mental health problems, they may also develop violent behaviour later in life.


Child trafficking

Children can feel distressed or alienated from their families and culture. They’re less likely to finish education or have healthy social interaction.

Child trafficking...

Sexual exploitation

They’re most likely to feel isolated from family and friends, drop out of school or become teenage parents, so they can struggle with relationships or unemployment  as adults.

Sexual exploitation...

Child sexual abuse costs the UK £3.2bn a year

Explanation: This is an estimated cost for 2012. It is difficult to calculate exact costs because child sexual abuse can take a number of different forms, and can affect victims in a number of different ways. This calculation is based on costs for health, criminal justice service, services for children and loss of productivity to society.


Over half a million children are abused in the UK each year

Explanation: Our calculation is based on the proportion of children who experienced maltreatment at the hands of their parents/carers.

Radford et al (2011) found that 2.5% of under 11s and 6% of 11-17 year-olds had experienced maltreatment by a parent or carer in the previous year.

Using child population data for 2011, we estimate that 520,000 children were abused by a parent or carer that year.


The right support at the right time can change lives

To help prevent abuse from ruining more childhoods, and our society in turn, it’s important that everyone plays their part in making sure childhood is free from abuse.

Good relationships with parents and family, especially in the early years, will make children more resilient and able to cope with stressful experiences.

We also need to make sure public services provide the right support for children and families early on, and improve how we identify and respond to problems.

Making changes in our society’s attitudes and beliefs about abuse can help too, such as speaking up when you’re worried about child or recognising FGM is child abuse.

Help us fight for these changes by supporting our campaigns.

Our services and research help prevent abuse and support children and families

Every child has basic needs: food, shelter, security, affection, positive encouragement and education. If there is domestic abuse, mental health or substance abuse problems at home, these needs may not be met.

Families need the right support to give their children everything they need to develop healthily and thrive, as well as help with any problems that may cause them to struggle looking after their children.

Find out more about our work


Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child's basic needs. It's dangerous and children can suffer serious and long-term harm.
Read more about neglect

Graded Care Profile

Assessing the care of children and identifying neglect.
Graded Care Profile service

Evidence Based Decisions

Reviewing family situations to protect children at risk of harm.
Evidence Based Decisions service

Improving parenting, improving practice

Helping parents who are struggling to care for their children.
Improving parenting, improving practice service


Encouraging, informing and promoting better parenting to protect young children from harm.
SafeCare service

Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.
Find research and resources

Child sexual abuse is a public health problem, but society and all social services can work together to prevent it.

Both adults and children must understand what sexual abuse is, recognise the signs and feel safe to speak up if they’re ever worried.

If a child abused, they need help to overcome their experience to keep themselves safe from further abuse or showing harmful sexual behaviour towards others as they grow up.

We also have to work with adult sex offenders to understand why and how they abuse children, so that we can help prevent them from reoffending and deter others from abusing children.

Find out more about our work

National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCATS)

Treating young high risk people who show the most serious kinds of harmful sexual behaviour.
National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCATS)

Letting the Future In

Letting the Future In helps children who have been sexually abused.
Letting the Future In service

Assessing the Risk, Protecting the Child

We assess and work with adults to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse.
Assessing the Risk service

Turn the Page

We protect children from the most common type of contact sexual abuse.
Turn the Page service

Let's talk PANTS!

The Underwear Rule - #TalkPANTS - is a simple way that parents can help keep children safe from abuse. Join Pantosaurus and parents talking PANTS.
Find out about PANTS

Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.
Find research and resources

Parents need to encourage warm and positive relationships within the family, and set clear boundaries and non-physical forms of discipline for children.

Early support is needed as soon as there are warning signs that can lead to physical abuse such mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, violent behaviour or other stressful situations the family may experience.

For those affected, social services for adults and children must treat the adults and children involved as a family unit, and children should be allowed to rebuild and strengthen their relationship with their non-abusive parent.

Find out more about our work

Caring Dads: Safer Children

Helping fathers see the impact their violent behaviour has on their children and how they can make positive changes for the future.
Caring Dads: Safer Children service

Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together

Helping mums and children strengthen their relationship after domestic abuse.
DART - Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together service

Family Environment: Drug Using Parents (FEDUP)

Protecting children living with adult drug and alcohol misuse.
FEDUP - Family Environment: Drug Using Parents service


Support and life skills for children who live with mums or dads with mental health difficulties.
Family SMILES service

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is deliberately hurting a child causing injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts.
Read more about physical abuse

Keeping children safe

Find out how you can keep children safe from abuse and other dangers, both online and in the physical world.
Advice on children's safety for parents and professionals

Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.
Find research and resources

Pregnancy and the early years provide the essential foundation for how children grow, learn and behave. To give their baby the best possible start, both mums and dads need support through antenatal education and care, as well as help managing the stresses of being new parents.

People who work with babies and young children like midwives, health visitors and GPs also play a vital role in supporting new parents and identifying when they may need help.  If we don’t act early, we risk storing up problems for the future.

Find out about our work

Baby Steps

Ante-natal programme helping vulnerable parents cope with the pressures of having a baby.
Baby Steps service

All Babies Count: prevention and protection for vulnerable babies

Reviews the current research on the vulnerability of babies to abuse and neglect and presents analysis of the risk factors and suggestions for early intervention.
Find out more

Parents Under Pressure™

Improving parenting in families with drug or alcohol issues.
Parents Under Pressure™ service

All Babies Count: spotlight on drugs and alcohol

Looks at how babies are affected by parental substance misuse, interventions that are available and what can be done to improve policy.
Find out more

Coping with Crying

Helping parents to keep calm and soothe their crying baby.
Coping with Crying service

Minding the Baby

Minding the Baby is an early intervention programme designed to enhance the mother's relationship with her child.
Minding the Baby service

Baby and toddler safety

Advice and tips for parents on bonding with your baby, crying, difficult behaviour and what to do if you can't cope.
Read about baby safety

All Babies Count: spotlight on perinatal mental health - prevention in mind

Report on how mental illnesses affects women during pregnancy and after birth, and improvements that can be made to identify, treat and prevent it.
Find out more

Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.
Find research and resources

Care is a vital part of our child protection system. Most children who go into care may have been abused and neglected, so therapeutic support is needed to help them overcome their experience and rebuild their lives.

Improvements can also be made to the system so that children’s needs are properly assessed when they go into care, they have stable placements and the services involved like social care, health, and education work together in their best interest.

When it’s being considered that a child can go back into their home, they need the proper assessment to make sure it’s right for the child. Once at home both the child and their family need continued support.

Find out more about our work

Children in care

Find out about our work with looked after children, the challenges in care and what the law says.
Find out more

Taking Care

Helping to make sure children only return home from care when it’s safe and with the right support.
Taking Care service

Returning home from care: what's best for children

A report examining issues around children returning home from care, how to address problems of reunification and services that can help.
Find out more

Face to Face

Improving the emotional well-being of children in care, or who may go into care, by helping them find solutions to problems affecting their lives.
Face to Face service

What works in preventing and treating poor mental health in looked after children?

Overview of the evidence about what works in preventing and treating poor mental health of children in care.
Find out more

New Orleans Intervention Model

Reducing the risk of abuse or neglect by helping professionals assess if children should stay in care.
New Orleans Intervention Model service

Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.
Find research and resources

Abuse can happen to any child, but children in particular communities can be more vulnerable to child trafficking, FGM or sexual exploitation.

Children from minority ethnic communities need to be better represented in the child protection system. Social services must be able respond appropriately to their needs, and balance culturally sensitive practice with a child-centred focus.

Find out more about our work

Child trafficking

Child trafficking is a type of abuse where children are recruited, moved or transported and then exploited, forced to work or sold. 
Read more about child trafficking

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. 
Read more about female genital mutilation

Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a type of sexual abuse in which children are sexually exploited for money, power or status.
Read more about child sexual exploitation

Keeping children safe

Find out how you can keep children safe from abuse and other dangers, both online and in the physical world.
Advice on children's safety for parents and professionals

Research and resources

Read our latest research, leaflets, guidance and evaluations that share what we've learned from our services for children and families.
Find research and resources

We need to shift attitudes and social assumptions about disabled children, so that the focus is on their specific needs and views are understood. They must be given a voice through advocacy services, peer support or creative therapies.

People who work with them need to be given time to listen to their viewpoint and work together more closely with other professionals so the child's needs are at the centre of their work.

Disabled children also need help to develop an understanding of what abuse is, how to protect themselves and how they can get help.

Further research is needed into the types of abuse that disabled children experience, so that we can find ways to better protect them.

What you can do

From requesting a Letter from Santa, to volunteering for our services, there are many ways you can help us in the fight for childhood.
Play your part

Make a donation today

A child will contact Childline every 25 seconds. Donate now and help us be there for every child.

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Support our campaigns

Together, we can continue to change laws, attitudes and help parents across the UK keep their children safe. 

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  1. Radford, L. et al (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.