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Child abuse

abuse; physical; sexual; neglect; emotional; child; reporting;


Children and young people have the right to be safe. The protection of children and young people is the responsibility of families and the community.

Child abuse is more common in families than many people think because it's often hidden.

  • Adults try to hide it when they know they're doing the wrong thing, because they feel ashamed, worried about being out of control or scared they might get into trouble with the law.
  • Children hide it because they are scared - often the person hurting the child has scared them or shamed them into not telling.


  • If you are a young person who is being abused or is not safe at home, it is important to tell a trusted adult or talk to a professional who can help you. Things are unlikely to change without help.
  • Child abuse happens often so it is likely that someone you know is a survivor of abuse. Be sensitive.
  • If you have survived abuse, take care when reading this. Talk to somebody you trust and ask for support, perhaps your school counsellor. If no-one is around, call your local crisis line for support.


What is child abuse?

Child abuse is physical or emotional hurt caused to a child by the abusive acts of others. It is also when a person doesn't look after a child properly and the child is harmed because of this (neglect).   General international law says a person is a child until 18 years of age.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when a child is physically hurt and it is not an accident. Bruises and welts from being hit, burns, broken bones, beatings, babies being shaken, strangulation or poisoning are kinds of physical abuse we hear about. If you see injuries like these on a young friend or a child and there is no explanation or the story about how it happened just doesn't fit, it might have been the result of physical abuse.

There are much better ways to discipline a child than smacking (see Being a Parent and Discipline - what is discipline? in the Parenting and Child Health section). 

When a child is hit hard, perhaps with a stick or wooden spoon, and it leaves marks such as bruises, this is abuse.

Emotional abuse

If bad things are always said about a child it can wear down the child's self esteem and self-worth to the point that the child can no longer do things other children can do, such as making friends, playing, or working. This is emotional abuse. Examples are putting the child down, criticising, shaming or rejecting the child and never showing love or warmth. Negativity in the child's environment, for example, domestic violence and abuse between parents can affect a child's emotional health.


When a person does not look after a child properly this harms the child. Examples of neglect are the child not getting enough food, not having shelter or suitable clothes, being left alone or abandoned, not getting medical help when it's needed and not getting an education.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is any sexual behaviour imposed on a child. Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. Abusers can be males or females. The abuser is often an older person with authority and power. Simply being older can give a person authority and power because we teach children to respect their elders and that adults are right. The abuser may be in a position of trust with the child and the family. A child or young person does not have the power to change the abuser's actions and behaviour.

Sexual abuse includes behaviour such as exhibitionism (purposely showing sexual organs), sexually suggestive comments and behaviour, fondling the child in a sexual way, making the child fondle the abuser, oral sex or putting a finger, penis or any thing else into the child's vagina or bottom (anus).

Effects of child abuse

Effects of child abuse are many and the effects vary from person to person. A person who has been abused may have any or several of the following effects:

Possible effects of physical abuse

  • bruising, broken bones, burns 
  • brain damage
  • anxiety or low self-esteem
  • sometimes death
  • the child may learn to be abusive to the next generation of children.

Possible effects of neglect

  • malnutrition or poor weight gain
  • poor health and not getting needed medical care
  • begging or stealing food due to hunger
  • missing out on lots of school, getting very little education
  • physical or intellectual developmental delay.
  • dressed inappropriately for the weather
  • dirty child, dirty clothes, unwashed hair
  • left alone for long periods of time

Possible effects of emotional abuse

  • child seems sad most of the time
  • has difficulty making friends
  • has difficult behaviour
  • low self-esteem
  • being anxious, tense and worried
  • becoming depressed or suicidal
  • physical delays eg, the child doesn't grow properly or can't walk or talk as well as others his age can
  • self destructive behaviour like drug use.

Possible effects of sexual abuse

  • feeling betrayed, sad, fearful and angry
  • having a great deal of knowledge about sex at a very young age or sexual behaviour that seems beyond his or her years
  • feeling guilty even though it is not the child's fault
  • fear of having nappy changed or being bathed
  • negative effect on future relationships
  • difficulty in trusting others
  • sudden avoidance of familiar adults or places
  • some children anguish over whether they are gay or lesbian if their abuser was of the same sex - this can cause a lot of confusion about sexual identity
  • difficulty dealing with emotions
  • feeling bad about own body
  • abuse of alcohol, food or drugs
  • difficulties with own sexuality and/or have difficulties parenting
  • becoming depressed
  • becoming suicidal
  • the child can be at risk of health problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, genital or urinary infections or possible pregnancy.

Although these effects are distressing to hear or read about, it should be noted that many, many people who were abused as children do heal and go on to lead positive, useful adult lives. For some the impact on them has been such that they go on to fight against child abuse, working hard to change society to protect our children. However the effects of child abuse do often persist into adult life. Have a look at the ASCA website (below).

There is help available. If you or someone you know was abused as a child and are suffering the effects of this an experienced counsellor can find ways to help.

How can you tell if abuse has happened?

The most accurate ways to tell if abuse is happening are:

  • if a child or friend tells you it is happening
  • if you are present when abuse occurs and can see an effect on your friend
  • if you see injuries that don't have a believable explanation.

If a friend tells you that abuse is happening, appropriate ways to support your friend are to:

  • believe your friend
  • offer support
  • try not to appear shocked.

It is most important that your friend is made safe so that the abuse can't continue to happen. To do this, a trusted adult such as a schoolteacher or counsellor or a child protection agency can help.

Secrets can be dangerous when a young person is not safe.

It doesn't happen around here... does it?

Many people think that child abuse is rare. In fact, it is quite common, but is often kept secret so we don't hear about it.

Child abuse happens in all cultures, in all types of families, whether they are working families, business owners or unemployed families. There are more reports of physical abuse and neglect in families where there are a lot of financial stresses and not many supports. It is very important for sexual abusers to get professional help to try and break this cycle.

Which children are most at risk of abuse?

Younger children, toddlers and babies, as well as some children with some disabilities, can't protect themselves from abuse or neglect. They often can't talk and can't tell anyone what's happening. They don't have the physical ability to get away.  

However children of all ages are abused.

What are the causes of child abuse?

There is no agreement amongst researchers about what causes child abuse. It happens in all different kinds of families in our society. Some of the factors that probably add towards abuse happening are:

  • isolation
  • poverty
  • stress from unemployment, illness, lack of child care, poor housing etc
  • the parents may have been abused themselves as children
  • parents have a lack of knowledge about positive parenting
  • the parents don't like the child
  • the child may be difficult to care for
  • acceptance of violence in our society.

What can be done about child abuse?

We can all help in preventing child abuse.

  • You could support programs and campaigns that work towards changing attitudes towards violence. Sometimes people brought up with physical violence think it's OK to hit children. For example, you sometimes hear people say "a good belting never did me any harm". But think of it this way .... if someone came up to you in the street and "gave you a good belting" would that be OK too? A child has the same rights to safety that we all do. There are more effective ways to discipline a child than physical punishment. See our Parenting and Child Health on Discipline (teens), Discipline - what is discipline? and Toddlers - living with toddlers.
  • Parents need time out too. Some people are lucky enough to have caring and trusted friends or relatives to help out. Others use professional childcare and respite care. There is government childcare assistance available for families with low incomes. The childcare centre should be able to give you information on how to apply. 
  • Parenting courses may be able to help.  No-one is born with the knowledge needed to be a parent so it can be really helpful to attend a course. A course like this can give you some really handy hints on positive parenting and an opportunity to swap ideas and stories with other parents. Another benefit is that you get some time out from your children as they usually offer a creche.
  • Groups in schools and youth services can help provide some of the skills young people need in the future for parenting such as problem solving, effective communication and conflict resolution - look for these groups in your community.

If you are concerned for a child, you should report it to your local child protection agency or talk to them by telephone to discuss the best thing to do next.

Reporting child abuse in South Australia

The Child Abuse Report Line in South Australia has phone lines open 24 hours on 13 1478. They can give advice about what you should do if you are not sure.  There is an Aboriginal team at Child Abuse Report Line, called Yaitya Tirramangkotti, to help Aboriginal families. Your name is kept confidential, and you don't have to provide it

Give as much information to the Child Abuse Report Line as possible. You don't have to go and investigate and find out more information and you don't have to know for sure if abuse is happening. If you suspect child abuse on reasonable grounds Child Abuse Report Line will use your information to decide what will be done. The worker you talk to can give you more information about what they might do.

Child Abuse Report Line makes a decision about what should happen next. If it's really serious the police and Families SA will work out an emergency response. In other situations Families SA workers will visit the home to see how they can help the child, or there will be a family meeting to work out what help the family needs.

What is important is that the child is protected from being hurt again.

In the most extreme circumstances if the child can not be made safe at home the child will stay somewhere else that is safe. This could be with relatives, friends or with a family who have been trained and checked for their safety. Usually this is temporary and Families SA work with the family for the child to return home safely as soon as possible. The decision about whether children are safe at home and whether they should stay out of home for a while is made by the Youth Court of South Australia.

Are you being abused?

If you are a young person and you're worried about your safety, you can contact the Child Abuse Report Line (in South Australia) on 13 1478 which is open 24 hours or the Kids helpline on 1800 551 800. In other places ask your telephone operator for a crisis number to help you. The person who answers the phone can talk to you about your situation and should be able to give you some choices and ideas to consider. You can phone anonymously if you want. But remember that nothing will change unless you tell other people or the child protection agency (Families SA) about your situation.

People who are abusive often need help themselves to be able to change their behaviour and stop hurting other people.

Many young people don't want to report because they are worried about what might happen. It is natural to be uncertain. The reality is that the situation most often gets better for the person who gets outside help. On-going abuse is unlikely to stop happening without some help. If you want support to do this you could talk to a friend, a trusted adult (eg doctor, teacher, school nurse or counselor) or a worker at a youth health service or community health service.

There are two topics on this site which may be useful Surviving sexual abuse (young men), and Surviving sexual abuse (young women).


South Australia

Child abuse

Counselling and helplines

Parenting information and support

Child care

  • Check your telephone book under "Child Care" or "Family Day Care" for community or private child care.
  • The Department of Education and Children's Services Office (08) 8226 1000 can tell you where your local child care centre is and give information about where to apply for concessions for child care.



Department of Families and Communities - about Families SA 

Child Protection Unit, Preventing and reporting child abuse.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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