In 2000 the NSPCC published groundbreaking research on the prevalence of child maltreatment in the UK. The research was based on a household survey of 2,869 young adults’ memories of childhood abuse (Cawson et al, 2000). In the past 11 years a lot has changed in children’s lives and in methods of research.

The current study aimed to provide up-to-date information on the prevalence and impact of child maltreatment and victimisation in a nationally representative sample of children and young people living in the UK and to compare rates of childhood experiences reported by young adults interviewed in 2009 with rates reported in the UK research conducted in 1998-89.

The research explored the prevalence and impact of child maltreatment and victimisation at home, in the school and in the community. This article focuses only on experiences of child maltreatment.

In 2009 researchers interviewed 6,196 adults and children in their homes. Households were randomly selected from postcodes across the UK. Laptop computers were used to ask questions and record answers privately (CASI and Audio CASI interviews). Interviews were conducted with:

  • 2,160 parents or guardians of children aged under 11
  • 2,275 young people aged between 11 and 17 and their parents or guardians
  • 1,761 young adults aged between 18 and 24.

The interview included questions about family life and health and about a wide range of experiences of physical violence, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and bullying at home, in school and in the community.

Validated measures of maltreatment and victimisation were used from the juvenile victimisation questionnaire (JVQ). Measures of impact were age-related:

  • For infants aged one month to two years, caregivers completed six items from the Brief Infant Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment (BITSEA) 18 and 13 items from the Infant Traumatic Stress Questionnaire (ITSQ).
  • For children aged from three to 10 a shortened 26-item version of the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children (TSCYC) was completed by caregivers to assess the child’s mental health problems over the past month.
    For young people aged 11 to 17 a shortened version of the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children was used (TSCC).
  • Young adult participants completed the 40-item version of the Trauma Symptom Checklist (TSC).

Parents completed the whole interview for children under the age of 11 and the questions on family health and income etc for children aged 11 to 17. Children aged 11 to 17 completed the questions on victimisation and impact. Young adults completed all the questions themselves. Participants were provided with opportunities to indicate if they wished to receive help or talk to someone about their experiences and interviewers provided all participants with information on relevant support services when handing out the debrief sheets at the end of the interview.

The response rate for the research was 60·4%. 48% of the children, young people and young adult participants in the survey were male and 52% were female.

Child maltreatment by adults in the family

  • Six per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds (3.9% of children and young people under 18) had experienced some form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect by a parent or guardian in the past year.
  • Almost one in 7 (14.1%) children and young people under 18 had been maltreated by a parent or guardian during their lifetime (defined as having had one or more experiences of physical violence, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect by a parent or guardian during their lifetime). This is as many as three in every school or college class.

It is hard to know from a survey how people are really affected but we decided to try to look at how many children and young people might have experienced maltreatment that was ‘severe’. We calculated maltreatment as ‘severe’ by looking at how often the abuse happened, whether there was any hurt or injury, whether it was sexual abuse that involved rape, attempted rape, forced touching and whether the young person said it was abuse.

Parents or guardians were said to be perpetrators in 76% of cases of severe maltreatment.

  • Almost one in nine (11%) children and young people had experienced severe maltreatment from any person during their lifetime.
  • More than one in 12 (8.4%) had experienced severe maltreatment from a parent or guardian during their lifetime.
  • 2.2% of under-18s had experienced severe as well as past-year maltreatment by a parent or guardian, indicating that these severely maltreated young people had been recently abused.

Young people were asked questions about self-harm and wanting to commit suicide within the past month. 8.5% of 11-17s reported wanting to hurt themselves and 5.3% reported wanting to commit suicide. We found that self-harm and wanting to commit suicide were both significantly related to experiencing all forms of victimisations but the greatest impact was for severe maltreatment.

Neglect by parents or guardians
Neglect means not being looked after properly, not being given enough food, not being taken to the doctor when you are sick, not having a safe place to stay, and nobody caring about you.

  • 8.4% of children and young people had experienced some neglect by a parent or guardian in their childhoods.
  • 6.2% of children had experienced severe neglect.

Emotional abuse by parents or guardians
Emotional abuse is when a grown-up does things to make a child or young person scared, feel unloved or feel bad about themselves.

  • 5% of children and young people had been emotionally abused by a parent or guardian in childhood
  • 2.3% had been emotionally abused in the past year.

Domestic violence, where one parent is abused by a partner, was often witnessed by children and young people.

  • 1 in 7 (14.2%) children and young people under 18 had witnessed domestic violence between adults in their homes during childhood.
  • 23.7% of 18-24s also reported witnessing domestic violence as children.
  • 3.7% of under-18s had witnessed one parent being kicked, choked or beaten up by the other parent.
  • 2.9% of under-18s had witnessed domestic violence in the past year.

When a parent had beaten up the other parent, 93.8% of the perpetrators were male.

Physical violence by parents or guardians
Physical violence included things like being hit, slapped, beaten or kicked by a parent or guardian, but we did not include ‘smacking’.

  • Not including ‘smacking’, 3.6% of under-18s had experienced some form of physical violence from a parent or guardian during childhood.
  • 1.4% had experienced this in the past year.
  • 55.1% of children and young people who had been hit, beaten, kicked or physically hurt by a parent or guardian were hurt or injured as a result.

We found physical violence by a parent or guardian was associated with significantly poorer emotional wellbeing for all age groups.

Physical punishment by parents/guardians
We asked parents or guardians about physical punishment and ‘smacking’. 41.6% of children and young people under 18 had been physically punished in the past year.

Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse happens when a child is involved in sexual activities that he or she cannot properly understand, cannot consent to or are against the law. Sexual abuse can be ‘contact’ sexual abuse, which means there was some sexual touching. ‘Non contact’ sexual abuse covers things that do not involve touching, such as having to look at somebody’s genitals or sexual acts, or having sexual images posted on the internet.

The perpetrators of contact sexual abuse of children and young people were:

  • other children and young people (44.2% of perpetrators)
  • the young person’s intimate partner (29.4%)
  • adults not living with the child (24%)
  • parents or guardians (4.1%)
  • siblings (3.1%).

More than one in 14 (7.3%) under-18s had been (contact or non contact) sexually abused in childhood. 4.1% of under 18s had experienced (contact or non contact) sexual abuse in the past year.

Teenage girls aged between 15 and 17 reported the highest past-year rates of sexual abuse.

More than one in 50 (2.2%) under-18s had experienced contact sexual abuse that included one or more of the following:

  • a rape or attempted rape, or forced sexual contact
  • sexual contact by a parent or guardian or adult in a position of trust (like a teacher or social worker)
  • sexual contact with an adult when under 16.

11.3% of young adults aged 18-24 had also experienced this during childhood.

Adults not living with the child
In the research we looked at which adults living outside the immediate family home are most likely to pose a risk to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people.

  • 4.5% of under-18s had experienced maltreatment or victimisation by an adult with whom they did not live.
  • 2% of under-18s had experienced this in the past year.

Outside the family home, it was adults known to the child, such as relatives, neighbours or family friends, who were most often responsible for maltreatment and victimisation of a child under the age of 11. Older children said more often it was adults who were strangers who were responsible.

0.4% of under 11s, 1.1% of 11-17s and 1.7% of 18-24s reported lifetime maltreatment and victimisation (including sexual abuse) by a teacher, coach or adult within an organisation.

One young person in the 11-17 age group and one young adult said they had been maltreated by a childminder.

Understanding the risks
Age: Our findings confirm other research showing that the risks of maltreatment and victimisation that children and young people face vary developmentally (Finkelhor, 2007). Opportunities for perpetrators to get access to children and young people tend to increase as a child grows and spends time in settings other than the family home.

Past-year maltreatment rates increased with the age of the child, from 3% reporting maltreatment in the past year at ages nine to 11 to 6.5% reporting maltreatment in the past year at ages 12-14. The increase of past-year maltreatment reported in the teens is an important finding from this research. Older children should not be overlooked in child protection work.

Known/unknown adults: Children under 11 are most likely to be maltreated by parents and known adults. This was also the case for older age groups, although 11-17s and 18-24s are also at risk of abuse by unknown adults.

Gender: Mothers/female guardians were more often responsible for maltreating children under the age of 11. In the older age groups, fathers/male guardians were more often responsible for maltreating children than were mothers or female guardians. Men and boys were also the most frequently responsible for sexual abuse of children and were the majority of perpetrators of domestic violence against another parent.

Experiencing other types of victimisation: Children and young people who had been maltreated were significantly more likely than those who were not to experience other types of victimisation. For example, children and young people aged 11-17 who had experienced lifetime maltreatment by a parent or guardian were also more likely to experience other victimisation (such as victimisation by peers, siblings or adults living outside the family home), and more likely to be living with domestic violence than young people who had not been maltreated by a parent or guardian. Physical violence from any perpetrator increased the risk of a child or young person also experiencing contact sexual abuse. Those aged 11-17, for example, who had experienced physical violence by someone who was not a caregiver were 5.75 times more likely to experience contact sexual abuse than those who had not experienced physical violence.

Multiple victimisation: a small minority of children and young people experience a high level of different types of maltreatment and victimisation. We found these most victimised children and young people were more likely to be older, have special educational needs or a longstanding disability or illness, have a parent with enduring physical, learning or psychiatric problems and to be living with a range of adversity.

Maltreatment and victimisation experiences are statistically associated with higher trauma symptoms, suicidal feelings and delinquent behaviour. Experiences of victimisation accumulate over childhood. The most victimised showed the highest trauma and behavioural impact. A minority of children are highly vulnerable as they experience multiple forms of maltreatment and victimisation.

Lorraine Radford, Susana Corral, Christine Bradley, Stephan Collishaw and Helen Fisher are the authors of the study

According to the majority of parents who responded to a recent survey, children are being forced to grow up too quickly. The Bailey Review of Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood was commissioned by the Department for Education to unravel and tackle issues around the premature sexualisation and commercialisation of children. The review surveyed over 1,000 parents of all backgrounds to find out what they thought about the pressure on children from advertising, the celebrity culture, music videos and other forms of media. The Bailey Review has also been listening to parents through focus groups and a call for evidence, which received an overwhelming response from parents. Specific areas of concern are emerging from parents. These include:

  • clothes to be clearly age-appropriate and not simply scaled-down versions of adult fashion
  • increasingly sexualised content in music videos and pre-watershed TV with ‘too adult’ themes in some soap operas
  • pressure to buy non-essential items for their children so they don’t feel left out.

Findings from the survey show:

  • 40% of parents said they had seen things in public places (shop window displays, advertising hoardings) that they felt were inappropriate for children to see because of their sexual content.
  • 41% of parents said they had seen programmes or adverts on TV before 9pm that they felt were unsuitable or inappropriate for children due to their sexual content.
  • Of those parents who had felt the need to complain about these issues but hadn’t, over 60% said that they had not done so either because they didn’t think anything would be done or they didn’t know who to complain to.
  • Around half of parents felt that celebrity culture, adult-style clothes and music videos are encouraging children to act older than they are.

Other emerging findings from the call for evidence and focus groups show:

  • Two-thirds of parents had come across clothes, toys, games, music videos or other products that they thought were inappropriate for the age group they were aimed at.
  • Almost all parents did not think it was appropriate for companies to use phone and text adverts when promoting products for children.
  • Parents feel that children are behaving in an overtly sexual manner before they are old enough to really understand what sexually provocative behaviour means.
  • Parents have said they want to deal with these pressures themselves but they want more responsible action from business and help from government to support them in this role.

Read the full report