Tusla - Ireland's Child & Family Agency

Definitions of child abuse

Child abuse can be categorised into four different types: neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. A child may be subjected to one or more forms of abuse at any given time. Abuse and neglect can occur within the family, in the community or in an institutional setting.  The abuser may be someone known to the child or a stranger, and can be an adult, or another child.  In a situation where abuse is alleged to have been carried out by another child, you should consider it a child welfare and protection issue for both children and you should follow child protection procedures for both the victim and the alleged abuser.   

The important factor in deciding whether the behaviour is abuse or neglect is the impact of that behaviour on the child rather than the intention of the parent/carer. 

The definitions of neglect and abuse presented in this section are not legal definitions.  They are intended to describe ways in which a child might experience abuse and how this abuse may be recognised.  






Child neglect is the most frequently reported category of abuse, both in Ireland and internationally. Ongoing chronic neglect is recognised as being extremely harmful to the development and well-being of the child and may have serious long-term negative consequences.

Neglect occurs when a child does not receive adequate care or supervision to the extent that the child is harmed physically or developmentally. It is generally defined in terms of an omission of care, where a child’s health, development or welfare is impaired by being deprived of food, clothing, warmth, hygiene, medical care, intellectual stimulation or supervision and safety. Emotional neglect may also lead to the child having attachment difficulties. The extent of the damage to the child’s health, development or welfare is influenced by a range of factors. These factors include the extent, if any, of positive influence in the child’s life as well as the age of the child and the frequency and consistency of neglect.

Neglect is associated with poverty but not necessarily caused by it. It is strongly linked to parental substance misuse, domestic violence, and parental mental illness and disability.

A reasonable concern for the child’s welfare would exist when neglect becomes typical of the relationship between the child and the parent or carer. This may become apparent where you see the child over a period of time, or the effects of neglect may be obvious based on having seen the child once.

The following are features of child neglect:

  • Children being left alone without adequate care and supervision
  • Malnourishment, lacking food, unsuitable food or erratic feeding
  • Non-organic failure to thrive, i.e. a child not gaining weight due not only to malnutrition but also emotional deprivation
  • Failure to provide adequate care for the child’s medical and developmental needs, including intellectual stimulation
  • Inadequate living conditions – unhygienic conditions, environmental issues, including lack of adequate heating and furniture
  • Lack of adequate clothing
  • Inattention to basic hygiene
  • Lack of protection and exposure to danger, including moral danger, or lack of supervision appropriate to the child’s age
  • Persistent failure to attend school
  • Abandonment or desertion

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the systematic emotional or psychological ill-treatment of a child as part of the overall relationship between a caregiver and a child. Once-off and occasional difficulties between a parent/carer and child are not considered emotional abuse. Abuse occurs when a child’s basic need for attention, affection, approval, consistency and security are not met, due to incapacity or indifference from their parent or caregiver. Emotional abuse can also occur when adults responsible for taking care of children are unaware of and unable (for a range of reasons) to meet their children’s emotional and developmental needs. Emotional abuse is not easy to recognise because the effects are not easily seen.

A reasonable concern for the child’s welfare would exist when the behaviour becomes typical of the relationship between the child and the parent or carer.

Emotional abuse may be seen in some of the following ways:

  • Rejection
  • Lack of comfort and love
  • Lack of attachment
  • Lack of proper stimulation (e.g. fun and play)
  • Lack of continuity of care (e.g. frequent moves, particularly unplanned)
  • Continuous lack of praise and encouragement
  • Persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility or blaming of the child
  • Bullying
  • Conditional parenting in which care or affection of a child depends on his or her behaviours or actions
  • Extreme overprotectiveness
  • Inappropriate non-physical punishment (e.g. locking child in bedroom)
  • Ongoing family conflicts and family violence
  • Seriously inappropriate expectations of a child relative to his/her age and stage of development

There may be no physical signs of emotional abuse unless it occurs with another type of abuse. A child may show signs of emotional abuse through their actions or emotions in several ways. These include insecure attachment, unhappiness, low self-esteem, educational and developmental underachievement, risk taking and aggressive behaviour.

It should be noted that no one indicator is conclusive evidence of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is more likely to impact negatively on a child where it is persistent over time and where there is a lack of other protective factors.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when someone deliberately hurts a child physically or puts them at risk of being physically hurt. It may occur as a single incident or as a pattern of incidents. A reasonable concern exists where the child’s health and/ or development is, may be, or has been damaged as a result of suspected physical abuse.

Physical abuse can include the following:

  • Physical punishment
  • Beating, slapping, hitting or kicking
  • Pushing, shaking or throwing
  • Pinching, biting, choking or hair-pulling
  • Use of excessive force in handling
  • Deliberate poisoning
  • Suffocation
  •  Fabricated/induced illness
  • Female genital mutilation

The Children First Act 2015 includes a provision that abolishes the common law defence of reasonable chastisement in court proceedings. This defence could previously be invoked by a parent or other person in authority who physically disciplined a child. The change in the legislation now means that in prosecutions relating to assault or physical cruelty, a person who administers such punishment to a child cannot rely on the defence of reasonable chastisement in the legal proceedings. The result of this is that the protections in law relating to assault now apply to a child in the same way as they do to an adult.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by another person for his or her gratification or arousal, or for that of others. It includes the child being involved in sexual acts (masturbation, fondling, oral or penetrative sex) or exposing the child to sexual activity directly or through pornography.

Child sexual abuse may cover a wide spectrum of abusive activities. It rarely involves just a single incident and in some instances occurs over a number of years. Child sexual abuse most commonly happens within the family, including older siblings and extended family members.

Cases of sexual abuse mainly come to light through disclosure by the child or his or her siblings/friends, from the suspicions of an adult, and/or by physical symptoms.

Examples of child sexual abuse include the following:

  • Any sexual act intentionally performed in the presence of a child
  • An invitation to sexual touching or intentional touching or molesting of a child’s body whether by a person or object for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child or the involvement of a child in an act of masturbation
  • Sexual intercourse with a child, whether oral, vaginal or anal
  • Sexual exploitation of a child, which includes:
    • Inviting, inducing or coercing a child to engage in prostitution or the production of child pornography [for example, exhibition, modelling or posing for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or sexual act, including its recording (on film, videotape or other media) or the manipulation, for those purposes, of an image by computer or other means]
    • Inviting, coercing or inducing a child to participate in, or to observe, any sexual, indecent or obscene act
    • Showing sexually explicit material to children, which is often a feature of the ‘grooming’ process by perpetrators of abuse
  • Exposing a child to inappropriate or abusive material through information and communication technology
  • Consensual sexual activity involving an adult and an underage person

An Garda Síochána will deal with any criminal aspects of a sexual abuse case under the relevant criminal justice legislation. The prosecution of a sexual offence against a child will be considered within the wider objective of child welfare and protection. The safety of the child is paramount and at no stage should a child’s safety be compromised because of concern for the integrity of a criminal investigation.

In relation to child sexual abuse, it should be noted that in criminal law the age of consent to sexual intercourse is 17 years for both boys and girls. Any sexual relationship where one or both parties are under the age of 17 is illegal. However, it may not necessarily be regarded as child sexual abuse. Details on exemptions for mandated reporting of certain cases of underage consensual sexual activity can be found in Chapter 3 of Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children.                                                       


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