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Recognising signs of abuse in children

7-minute read

At some time, you may face a situation where you suspect a child is being abused. There are 4 main types of abuse of children and the child may behave in ways that signal they are being abused.

Emotional abuse

The Australian Government defines emotional abuse as "Any act by a person having the care of a child that results in the child suffering any kind of significant emotional deprivation or trauma". This definition includes children who are exposed to family violence.

There are several signs that a child might be experiencing emotional abuse. They might:

  • be unhappy, scared or upset
  • behave aggressively
  • be antisocial or act like they are a lot older
  • skip school
  • find it hard to make friends
  • have unexplained pain
  • wet the bed
  • look like they are not eating enough or have signs of physical neglect

Neglect

Neglect of a child is any serious act – or failure to act – by someone who has care of the child that fails to provide the conditions for their healthy physical and emotional development.

Signs that a young child or baby may be experiencing neglect include:

  • having a relationship with their caregiver which is not close
  • being particularly nervous
  • being aggressive
  • being inappropriately affectionate to strangers

For older children, signs include the following:

  • acting as though they are much younger or older than their age
  • being unable to socialise well or be part of a social group
  • being unable to control very strong emotions
  • experiencing malnutrition or hoarding food

A child who is being neglected may have poor hygiene, matted hair or untreated medical conditions. They may also be at home alone.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is any physical act inflicted upon a child, which is not an accident, by a person having the care of a child.

Signs that a child may be experiencing physical abuse include:

  • unexplained bruises, cuts, burns or welts on their body
  • hypervigilance (always looking out for danger) and difficulty trusting people
  • aggressive behaviour or trying to dominate and control other people
  • showing overwhelming emotional responses to normal situations (known as 'emotional storms')
  • doing poorly at school
  • slower physical development
  • finding it hard to make friends
  • low self-esteem
  • mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  • being scared of a caregiver or afraid to go home
  • wearing long sleeves or trousers in hot weather

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is any act by a person having the care of a child where the child witnesses, or is involved in, sexual activity beyond his or her understanding or against accepted community standards.

Signs that a child may be experiencing sexual abuse include:

  • pain or bleeding around the child's anus or genitals
  • being scared to be alone with someone
  • being withdrawn, detached, sad or having mood swings
  • self-harming behaviour
  • problems with eating, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
  • being violent and aggressive
  • sleep issues, wetting the bed or nightmares
  • suicidal behaviour
  • engaging in sexual behaviour or talk which seems to be beyond their age
  • having unexplained body pain

What should I do if I notice signs of abuse?

Some questions you could ask yourself include:

What are the warning signs I'm seeing?

Stay alert if you think you are seeing signs such as the ones listed above. Watch what the child does, as well as what they say. Take written notes if you have any concerns.

Should I speak with the child about it?

You may like to have a calm conversation with the child, letting them know you have noticed that they don’t seem to be acting as they do normally (for example, they may seem sad or unwell). The child may tell you something about what they are experiencing. Listen, but don’t judge them and don’t pressure the child or say words you want them to say. It’s important that the words are theirs. Let them know that you are there to listen to them at any time.

If the child tells you about any abuse, remain calm and listen rather than trying to investigate. It is not your job to try and find out more or to counsel the child. Thank the child for telling you, let them know you believe them and want to help. Tell the child they are not in trouble and that they have done the right thing. Don't promise to keep it a secret though because you will need to report it.

Will child abuse just go away?

No. It usually gets worse over time.

Should I report it if I don't have absolute proof?

Child abuse is unacceptable, regardless of any circumstance or cultural environment. It is also under-reported in Australia.

It can be hard to act on suspicions of abuse, since you may feel you are disrupting a family or ruining another adult's life. You may feel that you can't speak out if you don't have clear proof that it is happening. However, it's best to report it even if you're not totally sure abuse is taking place. Children can be affected for their entire lives by abuse and it's vital that adults protect them. Abuse is never the child's fault. Acting on a suspicion could prevent any further abuse happening.

Decide if there are reasonable grounds that the abuse is taking place. Ask yourself what someone else would think if they knew what you know. If the answer is that they would believe abuse is taking place, then you should report it. Don't talk about it with the person you know or think may be abusing the child. This should be done by the police and/or a child protection department.

Who do I report it to?

Anyone who thinks that a child is being abused can report it to a child protection authority. Each state or territory is responsible for child protection in their jurisdiction. Below are the government departments or organisations you can report to or call to ask for help.

Some professionals, such as teachers, doctors, nurses and police, are required under the law to report child abuse.

Call the police on triple zero (000) if you think a child is in immediate danger.

Child protection authorities you can contact

If you are concerned about the child's immediate health or life, call triple zero (000).

Other organisations that can help

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020


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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

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This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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