Types of Child Abuse

There are various forms of child abuse occurring in Australia. Learn to recognise child abuse as it appears.

Resource for victims, families

girl sitting in the dark

Image: Pexels

Child sexual abuse 

Child sexual abuse – also sometimes called child molestation or child sexual assault – can involve fondling a child’s genitals or a perpetrator encouraging a child to fondle their genitals; masturbation with the child either as an observer or participant; oral sex; fondling of breasts; vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or other object; voyeurism or exhibitionism.

Exposing a child to pornography or using a child for the purposes of pornography or prostitution is also classified as child sexual abuse.

The online world is providing perpetrators with access to a large number of potential victims. Perpetrators who use instant messaging or other online communication tool to persuade children to engage in sexual activity is a growing danger.

For example, YouTube star and influencer Austin Jones was convicted in 2019 after he encouraged more than 30 underage female fans to send nude, sexually explicit images via Facebook and Apple iMessage.

Jones was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Here are some common signs of child sexual abuse:

  • Unexplained personality changes and angry outbursts
  • Nightmares, sleeping problems and/or bedwetting
  • Trouble at school and slipping grades
  • Becoming withdrawn or unusually secretive
  • Seems insecure and has low-self esteem
  • Distrustful of adults
  • Can’t connect or relate to other children or adults
  • Unexplained sores or bruises around genitals, mouth
  • Acting in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
  • Inappropriate knowledge of sex for their age
  • Receives unexplained gifts and/or money

Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a child is hurt deliberately by their carer. Physically abusive behaviours include hitting, punching, scratching, strangling, choking, burning, biting and even shaking.

Any action which results in a child’s person being harmed, injured, bruised or broken is considered physical abuse.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 18% of child abuse reports in 2016 involved physical abuse. More than 8,000 children were physically abused by their carers.

Here are some common signs of physical child abuse:

  • Bruises and/or welts in unusual shapes (like hands or fingers)
  • Fractures and/or swollen joints
  • Human bite marks
  • Burns and lacerations
  • Head or brain injuries
  • Frequent trips to the hospital
  • Seems to have unexplained injuries
  • Seems to have strange or vague stories about how the injuries occurred
  • Doesn’t seem to show emotions when hurt
  • Seems scared of parent or carer
  • Seems distrustful of adults in general
  • Misses school on a regular basis
  • Personality changes e.g. passive, uncommunicative and shy, or aggressive towards others, self-harming and disruptive in class

Emotional maltreatment

Emotional maltreatment is the most common form of child abuse in Australia. In 2016, 20,339 children were emotionally mistreated by their families and carers.

Emotional maltreatment occurs when an adult’s actions fail to meet the needs of a child in their care. Examples of emotional maltreatment include rejecting, isolating, corrupting, terrorising, ignoring, belittling, bullying, shouting, swearing and screaming at children.

This can have harmful effects on a child. Many children who experience emotional maltreatment or abuse can feel unloved, worthless or have very low self-esteem which can lead to further problems later in life like depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse.

Here are some other signs of emotional maltreatment:

  • Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and/or self harm
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Deprived of living conditions other children enjoy
  • Copies negative language and behaviour they see at home
  • Aggressive and disruptive or, on the other hand, overly compliant and eager to please

Neglect

Neglect occurs when a child’s need for food, clothing, shelter, education and medical attention are not met. Often, children experiencing neglect are left alone or unsupervised a lot of the time, live in unhygienic conditions and sometimes don’t even have enough food to get through the day.

In 2015-16, 25% of all child abuse notifications and reports were cases of neglect.

Here are some common signs of child neglect:

  • Poor hygiene including dirty skin, dirty clothes, body odour and unbrushed or matted hair
  • Poor health and unattended physical or medical issues
  • Inappropriate clothing in winter (no warm clothes)
  • Rarely has food to eat at school and/or malnourished
  • Begging, stealing and/or hoarding food
  • Frequent absence from school
  • Frequent lateness to school and/or extra-curricular activities
  • Seems tired most of the time
  • Unsupervised for long periods (e.g. left at home while parent works or goes out)

Exposure to family violence

Exposure to domestic violence can have drastic effects on a child’s behaviour, performance at school, cognitive development, and mental and physical wellbeing. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, exposure to domestic violence is also the leading cause of homelessness for children.

In 2014, Victorian Police reported 65,393 family incidents – children were present at 22,445 of these incidents. This amounts to 34% of all domestic violence reports in Victoria.

Here are some common signs a child has been exposed to family or domestic violence:

  • Experiencing nightmares, fear of sleeping and/or bedwetting
  • Changed behaviour in play e.g. unable to be creative in play, acting out violent behaviour with toys
  • Distracted at school, grades slipping and generally disruptive in the classroom
  • Experiencing stomach aches and headaches with no medical reason why
  • Increased separation anxiety and clingy
  • Doesn’t want to go home
  • Hypervigilant and anxious
  • Increasingly aggressive and angry
  • Regression and baby-like behaviour
  • Emotionally numb

How to report violence

Any forms of child abuse should be reported to the authority. There are also places where you can seek help such as the child and youth protection community in your area.

If a child is in immediate danger, please call 000.

Please see our guide to reporting child sexual abuse for more information. Otherwise, you can find support services below:

Australian Capital Territory

Office for Children, Youth and Family Support.

Phone: 1300 556 729

New South Wales

Department of Family and Community Services

Phone: 132 111 (TTY 1800 212 936)

Northern Territory

Department of Children and Families

Phone: 1800 700 250.

Queensland

Department of Community, Child Safety and Disability Services

During business hours – contact your regional child safety service. To find out the number for your service, call: 1800 811 810 or see a full list of services here

After hours and on weekends, call: 1800 177 135 or (07) 3235 9999.

South Australia

Department for Education and Child Development

Phone: 131 478

Tasmania

Department of Health and Human Services

Phone: 1300 737 639

Victoria

Department of Human Services

Phone: 13 12 78

Western Australia

Department for Child Protection and Family Support

During business hours, call: (08) 9222 2555; or country free call: 1800 622 258

After hours, please contact Crisis Care on: (08) 9223 1111; country free call: 1800 199 008