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How to recognise child abuse

Some children show no signs of being abused, while others may show signs of abuse through their behaviour, emotions or physical appearance.

Some signs can be common across different types of abuse. Other signs may only suggest that a child is experiencing trauma or grief.

Recognise signs of abuse

Physical

  • Broken bones or unexplained bruising or burns in different stages of healing.
  • Being unable to explain an injury or giving inconsistent, vague or unlikely explanations for an injury.
  • Having unusual or unexplained internal injuries.
  • History of family violence.
  • Delay between injury and seeking medical assistance.
  • Repeated visits to the doctor with injuries, poisoning or minor complaints.
  • Being unusually frightened of a parent or carer.
  • Wearing inappropriate clothing in warm weather (to hide bruises, cuts or marks).
  • Avoiding physical contact.
  • Becoming scared when other children cry or shout.
  • Being excessively friendly to strangers.
  • Starting fires or being fascinated with fire.
  • Destroying property.
  • Hurting animals.

Sexual

Find out more about the signs of child sexual abuse.

Emotional

  • Extreme behaviour ranging from being overly aggressive to submissive.
  • Delayed emotional development.
  • Compulsive lying or stealing.
  • high levels of anxiety.
  • Lack of trust in people.
  • Persistent bedwetting, urinating or soiling in clothes.
  • Regressive behaviour, such as baby talk or thumb sucking.
  • Having feelings of worthlessness about life and themselves.
  • Overeating or hardly eating at all.
  • Self-harming.

Neglect

  • Starving, begging, stealing or hoarding food.
  • Having poor hygiene, matted hair, dirty skin or body odour.
  • Frequent illness, infections or sores.
  • Talking about no one being at home to provide care.
  • Frequently late or absent from school.
  • Wearing inadequate clothing, especially in winter.
  • Being left unsupervised for long periods.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse at home.
  • Delayed physical, emotional or intellectual development.

Recognise risk factors

These factors don’t mean that a child has been harmed, but it can make you aware of the possibility that a child may be at risk.

Parenting issues

Caring for children can feel overwhelming, especially if the parent or carer:

  • doesn’t get enough support from family, friends or the community
  • feels stressed because of money problems, job worries or medical problems
  • expects too much from a child and doesn’t know what a child should be able to do at a certain age
  • doesn’t know how to help children learn and behave in a positive way
  • has problems with drugs or alcohol misuse
  • doubts their ability to be a good parent and doesn’t seek help and support
  • was abused as a child.

Understanding the possible triggers doesn’t justify child abuse. Parents are responsible for the care of their children and need to recognise when they need help before harm occurs.

Given the right skills and resources, most people who have harmed a child can learn to parent in a positive way.

Community attitudes

Some community attitudes can also make it easier for abuse to take place. These include:

  • accepting violence in the community
  • thinking physical punishment of children is acceptable
  • believing parents have the right to treat their children as they see fit
  • racism
  • not seeing men and women as equals
  • not understanding the effects of child abuse.