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About child abuse

What is child abuse?

There are four types of child abuse:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect.

Child abuse can be a single incident or several incidents that take place over time. According to the Child Protection Act 1999, what matters is not the number of incidents, but whether the child:

  • suffered significant harm, is suffering significant harm, or is at risk of suffering significant harm*
  • has a parent who is able and willing to protect them.

Harm is defined as any detrimental effect of a significant nature on the child’s physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing.

*You can read more about the definition of harm in the Act:

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when a child suffers physical trauma or injury that is not accidental. It doesn’t always leave visible marks or injuries. What matters most is the act itself that caused the trauma or injury. Physical abuse can include:

  • hitting
  • shaking
  • throwing
  • burning
  • biting
  • poisoning.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse happens when a child's social, emotional or intellectual development is damaged or threatened. It can include constant:

  • rejection
  • teasing or bullying
  • yelling
  • criticism
  • exposure to domestic and family violence.


Neglect is when a child's health and development are affected because their basic needs are not met. These needs include:

  • food
  • housing
  • health care
  • adequate clothing
  • personal hygiene
  • hygienic living conditions
  • medical treatment
  • adequate supervision.

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is when an adult, a stronger child or a teenager uses their power or authority to involve a child in a sexual activity. It can be physical, verbal or emotional and can include:

  • having any kind of sexual contact with a child
  • rape
  • incest
  • having sexual relations with a child under 16 years old
  • talking in a sexually explicit way that’s not suitable for a child’s age
  • sending obscene mobile messages or emails to a child
  • persistently intruding on a child’s privacy
  • showing pornographic material to a child or forcing them to watch a sexual act
  • child prostitution.

There are ways you can help to protect a child from sexual abuse, including:

  • recognising the signs of sexual abuse
  • being aware of possible grooming behaviour
  • knowing where to get help.

Find out more about child sexual abuse.

Signs of child abuse or neglect

A child who has been, or may be experiencing abuse or neglect may show behavioural, emotional or physical signs of stress and abuse.

Signs of child abuse

Child abuse may be the cause if a child:

  • doesn’t trust adults or seems afraid of adults
  • is very demanding or aggressive and doesn’t get along with others
  • breaks things or hurts animals
  • has trouble sleeping, is often tired or finds it hard to concentrate
  • has little confidence or seems too shy 
  • being very quiet or more obedient then normal
  • abuses alcohol or drugs
  • seems to have a lot of injuries or has broken bones and gives unlikely explanations
  • feels suicidal or attempts suicide
  • seems to rock, suck or bite more than other children
  • wets or soils their bed or clothes
  • doesn’t want to go home or runs away
  • creates stories, poems or artwork about abuse.

Signs of child neglect

Child abuse in the form of neglect may be the cause if a child:

  • begs, steals or hoards food
  • appears malnourished
  • has poor hygiene, matted hair, dirty skin or body odour
  • has physical or medical problems that haven’t been treated
  • says no-one is home to take care of them or is left alone for long periods.
  • is always tired
  • is often late for or absent from school
  • wears clothes that are not suitable, especially too little clothing in winter
  • often has illnesses, infections or sores.

Effects of harm

Harm experienced in childhood can have significant and lasting effects for children and no two children react in the same way.

Children may experience a range of emotion, psychological and physical problems as a result of being harmed, including:

  • low self esteem
  • increased fear, guilt and self-blame
  • distrust of adults or difficulty forming relationships with others
  • mental health disorders such as anxiety, attachment, post-traumatic stress and depression disorders
  • suicidal thoughts and self-harming
  • learning disorders, including poor language and cognitive development
  • developmental delay, eating disorders and physical ailments
  • permanent physical injuries or death
  • violent, aggressive or criminal behaviour or other behavioural problems
  • drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk sexual behaviour.
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia (CC BY 3.0)
Last updated:
2 February 2015
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