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Child abuse

9-minute read

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation, call triple zero (000).

If you have hurt your child in the past, or feel like you might hurt them, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Key facts

  • Child abuse is any act that causes harm to a child, that is carried out by someone in a position of trust or responsibility.
  • Physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect are among the various types of abuse.
  • Children are most often abused by a family member or someone they know.
  • Abuse can affect a child's development in many different ways and lead to social, emotional and mental health problems.
  • Even if you are uncertain, report any suspicions of child abuse to the child protection authority in your state or territory.

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is any act that causes physical or emotional harm to a child, that is carried out by someone who is in a position of responsibility, trust or power. This might be an adult or an older child.

Child abuse is against the law. It is never appropriate.

An act may be considered child abuse, even if it was not done intentionally.

It's not known how many children suffer from child abuse, because many children don't tell anyone about it.

What are the types of child abuse?

There are different types of child abuse. Most children who are abused experience more than one type.

Physical abuse

This means using physical force to injure a child. Some examples are hitting, pushing, shaking, strangling, burning or poisoning.

Emotional abuse

This means using words or actions to make a child feel that there is something wrong with them, or that they are not loved or valued for who they are. Some examples of emotional abuse are criticising, teasing, blaming, threatening or humiliating.


This means failing to provide a child with their basic needs, such as:

  • food
  • clothing and hygiene
  • a place to live
  • supervision and a safe environment
  • medical or dental treatment
  • education
  • love

Sexual abuse

This refers to any sexual act involving a child including:

  • inappropriate touching
  • intruding on a child's privacy
  • forcing a child to watch sexual acts
  • making a child behave in a sexual way
  • using a child in pornography

Exposure to family violence

This is when a child lives in a home where there is domestic and family violence.


A child can be used for someone else's benefit, resulting in harmful treatment of the child. Some examples are using a child for labour, drug trafficking or pornography.

Who is at risk of child abuse?

Children are most often abused or neglected by a family member or someone they know. The person committing abuse could be male or female.

A child is at higher risk of abuse if:

  • another child in their family has been abused
  • their family doesn't have support from extended family, friends or community
  • they have a parent with an intellectual disability, a mental health problem or an addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling
  • their family has financial stress or no stable place to live
  • they have a parent who was abused as a child
  • they live in a home where there is domestic violence
  • they have a disability

Injuries may arise from the use of force or due to a caregiver's inability to provide adequate supervision and care, leading to accidental injuries.

What are the effects of child abuse?

Child abuse can affect a child's physical, psychological, emotional, behavioural and social development.

It can lead to:

  • a feeling of shame and low self esteem
  • changes in mood
  • nightmares and flashbacks of the abuse
  • difficulty trusting people and forming relationships
  • learning problems
  • thoughts of self-harm and suicide

Children who have been abused are at higher risk of:

The effects of child abuse don't go away when a child grows up. As an adult, they are at higher risk of suicide, violence, drug abuse and mental health problems.

What are the signs of child abuse?

It's not always possible to know if a child is being abused. However, there may be physical, emotional or behavioural signs such as:

  • broken bones or bruising, burns or welts, without a convincing explanation
  • not wanting to go home
  • appearing to be scared of a parent or carer
  • being hungry and begging for food, or stealing food, or hoarding food
  • poor hygiene
  • missing a lot of school
  • harming themselves, animals or property

Read more about how to recognise signs of abuse in children.

What should I do if I suspect a child is being abused?

You should report suspected child abuse to the relevant authority in your state or territory, even if you are not certain it's happening. The child protection authorities will listen to your concerns and decide whether they need to look into the case further.

If you are very worried about a child, it's best to report it by phone, not online.

People in some occupations are legally required to report suspected cases of child abuse. The most common occupations are teachers, early childhood educators, doctors, nurses and police officers.

What should I do if a child tells me they have been abused?

If a child tells you that they have been abused, it's very important to make it clear that you believe them, show them your support and help them feel safe. Stay calm and listen while they tell you what happened.

Remember, it's not your role to investigate the abuse, so don't press the child for information or confront the abuser.

Tell the child that you're going to share what they've told you with people who can help keep them safe. Contact your state or territory's child protection authorities, and report what you know.

Learn more about how to respond to the child and show your support. The ability of the child to seek further help and recover from the trauma can be significantly influenced by your response. Some important messages they need to hear from you include:

  • “I believe you.”
  • “You are brave for telling me about this.”
  • “I want to help you be safe.”
  • “What is happening is NOT okay.”
  • “It's not your fault.”
  • “You're not alone and I will support you.”
  • “You've done the right thing telling me.”

Reporting abuse or neglect

Contact the authorities in your state or territory to report suspected abuse or neglect.

Resources and support

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation, call triple zero (000).

  • If you have hurt your child in the past, or feel like you might hurt them, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
  • If you are a child, teen or young adult who needs help and support, call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
  • If you are an adult who experienced abuse as a child, contact Blue Knot on 1300 657 380.
  • For detailed information on how to report child abuse and neglect, read more on the Child Family Community Australia.

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

Last reviewed: March 2023

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