Safeguarding 1: Recognise

This first safeguarding unit helps you learn how to recognise signs of harm and abuse in young people and our policies for dealing with them.

One of the best ways to build your knowledge and confidence in protecting young people we work with is by fully understanding the signals and warning signs when young people's safety is at risk.

Definition of “abuse and neglect”

Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child or young person. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting, or by failing to act to prevent, significant harm to the child. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional setting, or in our context in a group or volunteering setting, by those known to them or, more rarely, by a stranger.

Types of Abuse and Neglect


Physical abuse is the causing of physical harm to a child or young person. Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning or suffocating. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer feigns the symptoms of, or deliberately causes, ill health to a child they are looking after.


Emotional abuse is persistent emotional neglect or ill treatment that has severe and persistent adverse effects on a child's emotional development. It may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may involve the imposition of age - or developmentally - inappropriate expectations on a child. It may involve causing children to feel frightened or in danger, or exploiting or corrupting children. Some level of emotional abuse is present in all types of ill treatment of a child; it can also occur independently of other forms of abuse.


Sexual abuse is any act that involves the child in any activity for the sexual gratification of another person, whether or not it is claimed that the child either consented or assented. Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative or non-penetrative acts. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of indecent images or in watching sexual activities, using sexual language towards a child or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.


Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child's health or development. It may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, shelter and clothing, to protect a child from physical harm or danger, or to ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or failure to respond to, a child's basic emotional needs. Neglect may also result in the child being diagnosed as suffering from 'non-organic failure to thrive', where they have significantly failed to reach normal weight and growth or development milestones and where physical and genetic reasons have been medically eliminated. In its extreme form children can be at serious risk from the effects of malnutrition, lack of nurturing and stimulation. This can lead to serious long-term effects such as greater susceptibility to serious childhood illnesses and reduction in potential stature. With young children in particular, the consequences may be life-threatening within a relatively short period of time.

Parental Substance Abuse

Substance misuse is when someone's drinking or drug use becomes harmful or dependent. By 'harmful' we mean when someone puts themselves or others in danger. They might continue to drink or take drugs even if it puts them at risk of illness, psychological problems or physical accidents. Dependent drinking or drug use is when someone craves alcohol or drugs and continues to use them even though it causes them social, health or even financial problems.

See Scottish Government for more info.

For the estimated 2,599 children on the child protection register at 31 July 2019, there were 7,332 concerns at the case conferences at which they were registered - an average of 2.8 concerns per conference. The chart below shows the most common concerns identified were domestic (1,068) and emotional (1,037) abuse, neglect (1,064), and parental substance misuse (1,061).

Warning Signs

As Adult Volunteers working with young people it is helpful to know that more research now confirms that children and young people's behaviour is usually trying to communicate something to us as adults. Ironically, sometimes the most challenging behaviour is happening because the young person trusts us enough to reveal the warning signs to us. Our role, is to make sure we don't jump to conclusions but remain respectful, understanding and compassionate in giving support. A useful phrase is to look out for signs of A, B, C (Appearance, Behaviour and Communication).

Possible Signs of Physical Abuse

Where essential medical attention has not been provided; Injuries that are being deliberately hidden or that occur without reasonable explanation; bruising in areas that would not normally be visible.

Possible Signs of Psychological Abuse

This includes juvenile behaviour not appropriate to age; Demonstrating undue nervousness; Unexpected under-achievement/poor performance; Participating in attention seeking activities; Running away from home, school etc.; Lying, stealing and other socially unacceptable behaviour.

Possible Signs of Sexual Abuse

Demonstrating, by various methods of communication, unusual interest in sexual matters; Being sexually provocative with adults; Experiencing difficulties with sleeping including bed-wetting and having nightmares; Suffering abdominal pains with no apparent cause. Self-harm – deliberately hurting themselves.

Possible Signs of Neglect

Poor appearance and behaviour; Health and development problems; Housing and family issues; Sudden changes in behaviour.

Possible Signs of Parental Alcohol or Substance Misuse

Any or all of the above areas can occur where parents or guardians experience substance misuse. There can also be instances of:

  • behavioural or emotional problems

  • having to care for their parents or siblings

  • poor attendance at school or low grades

  • experiencing poverty

  • being exposed to criminal activity and violence

  • being groomed to work as part of the supply/delivery chain

  • being separated from parents.

More information is available here.

The NNECA has created a useful diagram on signs of child sexual abuse.

Now that you know a bit about the types and signs of abuse and neglect, see how you get on with the quiz on Moodle in the relevant Safeguarding Unit.