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Recognising signs of child abuse

10-minute read

At some time, you may be in a situation where you suspect a child is being abused. There are 5 main types of child abuse and neglect. These are:

  1. physical abuse
  2. emotional abuse
  3. neglect
  4. sexual abuse
  5. being around family violence

A child can suffer from one or more types of abuse.

Some children show no external or obvious signs of abuse. Other children may show signs of abuse through their:

  • behaviour
  • emotions
  • physical appearance

Being aware of signs of abuse may help you support a child who is being harmed.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when a child is hurt on purpose, or at risk of being hurt by someone they know. This could be:

  • a family member
  • a relative
  • a carer
  • another adult or child

Signs of physical abuse can be hidden or not obvious. They can include:

  • broken bones, unexplained bruises, cuts, burns or welts on their body
  • being unable to explain an injury
  • a delay between the injury and seeking medical help
  • repeated visits to the doctor with injuries, poisoning or minor complaints
  • often being away from school
  • being frightened of a parent or carer
  • wearing inappropriate clothing in warm weather (to hide bruises, cuts or marks)
  • avoiding physical touch or being overly friendly and seeking out physical comfort from relative strangers
  • becoming scared when other children cry or shout
  • being excessively friendly to strangers
  • self-stimulatory behaviours such as rocking or head banging, or twirling and pulling their hair
  • starting fires or being fascinated with fire
  • destroying property
  • hurting animals

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is when a child is repeatedly:

  • rejected
  • isolated
  • threatened
  • humiliated

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

  • unexplained mood swings
  • big delays in emotional, mental and physical development
  • language delay or stuttering
  • poor self-image and low self-esteem
  • high levels of anxiety
  • lack of trust in others
  • heightened desire for attention or affection from known and unknown adults
  • reluctance to go home
  • regressive behaviours such as rocking, sucking their thumb and bedwetting
  • fear of someone they know
  • self-soothing behaviours, like hair twirling and pulling, excessive nail biting and picking

They may also:

Neglect

Neglect is when a child doesn’t have enough:

  • food
  • shelter
  • medical treatment
  • supervision
  • emotional warmth and attention

Neglect results in the child being injured or their development harmed. Possible signs of neglect include:

  • showing signs of hunger
  • begging, stealing or hoarding food
  • poor personal hygiene such as matted hair, dirty skin, sores and/or body odour
  • often being ill, untreated medical problems or lack of routine medical care
  • often being tired, late for school or absent from school
  • left at school for long periods after the end of the school day
  • being left at home alone
  • lack of proper clothing
  • inadequate shelter or unsafe conditions

Signs that a young child or baby may be experiencing neglect include not meeting physical and developmental milestones.

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is when a child is coerced or forced to take part in sexual activities. This can happen both online and offline.

Signs of child sexual abuse include changes in behaviour, emotions and physical signs. These might include:

  • knowing more about sexual activities than other children their age
  • masturbating more or in way that is unusual for their age
  • involving other children in concerning sexual behaviours
  • refusing to undress for activities
  • often wearing layers of clothing
  • difficulty walking or sitting
  • itching or pain in the genital area
  • difficulty going to the toilet
  • torn, stained or bloody clothes, especially underwear
  • bruising, bleeding, swelling, tears or cuts on their genitals or anus
  • unusual vaginal odour or discharge
  • having a sexually transmitted infection
  • being afraid of being alone with someone
  • being depressed, feeling suicidal or attempting suicide
  • frequent headaches and tummy ache
  • creating stories, poems or artwork about abuse
  • having unexplained presents or money
  • accusing someone other than the perpetrator of abuse

How can I help protect my child?

You can help by teaching your child about personal safety.

Talk about personal safety with your child. This should be an ongoing conversation. Always let your child know you are there for them and they can talk to you at any time. It's important to tell them not to keep secrets about things that worry them, especially if someone else tells them to keep a secret about something that hurts or worries them.

Speak calmly and confidently. Allow time for your child to think about the information and ask questions. Try not to scare your child.

Teach your child the correct terms for their private parts (penis, vulva, anus). Make clear that these parts are private and belong to them. Never make them feel embarrassed about their sexuality or body.

What should I do if I notice signs of abuse?

If you suspect that a child is being abused, there are some things to remember.

  • Be alert to any warning signs of child abuse.
  • Watch the child and make notes of your concerns. Note down changes in their behaviour, ideas, feelings and the words they use.
  • When a child is being abused it doesn’t go away. It usually becomes more serious over time.

What should I say to the child?

You may like to have a calm conversation with the child. Let them know you have noticed that they don’t seem to be acting like they normally do. For example, they may seem sad or unwell.

The child may tell you what they are going through. Listen, but don’t judge them and don’t pressure the child. It’s important that you don’t encourage them to say what you want them to say; the words must be theirs. Let them know that they can always talk to you. And make sure that you listen to them when they do.

If the child tells you about any abuse, remain calm and listen. 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.

Who do I report abuse to?

Anyone who thinks that a child is being abused should report it to a child protection authority.

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

Some professionals, such as teachers, doctors, nurses and police, are required by law to report child abuse. They are known as mandatory reporters.

Each state or territory handles child protection. Below are the government departments or organisations you can ask for help.

Child protection authorities you can contact

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

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

It can be hard to act on suspicions of abuse. You may feel you are interfering or ruining another adult's life.

You may feel that you can't say anything if you don't have proof that it is happening. However, it's best to report it even if you're not sure abuse is taking place. Child abuse is unacceptable, regardless of the circumstance or cultural background. It is also under-reported in Australia.

Abuse is never the child's fault. Acting on your suspicions could stop any further abuse happening. Children can be affected for their whole lives by abuse. It's vital that adults protect them.

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.

What happens when I report child abuse?

When you report a case of suspected child abuse you will be asked:

  • the name, age and address of the child
  • the reasons you suspect the child has been abused, or is at risk of abuse
  • the immediate risk to the child
  • your contact details

You may remain anonymous. However, it is preferable to supply these details. That way you can be contacted if further information is needed.

Even if you do not have all the details, you should report the abuse.

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

It can be hard to act on suspicions of abuse. You may feel you are interfering or ruining another adult's life.

You may feel that you can't say anything if you don't have proof that it is happening. However, it's best to report it even if you're not sure abuse is taking place.

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

Abuse is never the child's fault. Acting on your suspicions could stop any further abuse happening. Children can be affected for their whole lives by abuse. It's vital that adults protect them.

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 think may be abusing the child. This should be done by the police and/or a child protection department.

Other organisations that can help

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: August 2022


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