Dialog Box

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) define child abuse and neglect as “…any acts of commission or omission by a parent, caregiver or other adult that results in harm, potential for harm, or the threat of harm to a child (0-18 years of age) even if the harm is unintentional (Gilbert et al., 2009). Child abuse and neglect can be in the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence”.

Would you recognise if a child were at risk of abuse or harm and know what to do?

Understanding the indicators of child abuse and neglect and knowing how to respond and what to report to whom is crucial in protecting vulnerable children – and is everyone’s responsibility. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in Australia in 1991, recognises children’s vulnerability and outlines adults’ and governments’ responsibilities in ensuring children’s rights and safety. 

Types of child abuse and neglect 

While most sources define types of abuse as below, it can be misleading to think that these happen independently of each other. Given the complexity of issues and how interwoven they are, children will usually experience multiple, interrelated forms of abuse and neglect.  

  • Physical Abuse - when a person purposefully injures or threatens to injure a child. 
  • Emotional Abuse - when a child is repeatedly rejected, ignored, shamed in front of others, or frightened by threats. 
  • Neglect - failure to provide the child with the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, shelter, supervision, medical attention or care to the extent that the health, safety, or development of the child is significantly impaired or placed at risk.  
  • Sexual Abuse - When a child is used by an adult, another child or adolescent for his or her own sexual stimulation or gratification. These can be contact or non-contact acts, including grooming by perpetrators, inappropriate touching, penetrative abuse, and exposure to pornography and accessing child pornography.  Perpetrators of sexual abuse use their age, size, authority or position of trust to engage a child into a sexual activity.
  • Family violence – when a person’s behaviour towards family members include physical violence, threats, verbal abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, financial and social abuse. A child being forced to hear, witness or otherwise be exposed to the effects of family violence constitutes child abuse.

More detailed information on the different types of abuse can be found at AIFS, Blueknot Foundation and World Health Organisation

Is there a difference between child abuse and neglect?

While these terms are often used interchangeably, the WHO does differentiate between them, referring to child abuse as an “…intentional infliction of harm on someone”; and neglect as a “…failure to provide the necessary care for an individual” (eg: medical attention, education, nutrition, shelter and clothes etc) ”...resulting in that individual's injury or illness”. (AIFS)

In my experience, the negative impact on children’s development and attachment/trust in the word in the long term is the same.

What are the causes of child abuse? 

There is no simple explanation for what causes child abuse or how it begins. In my experience working in the Child Protection and Family Services systems, child abuse was often triggered by issues like a lack of parenting skills; low self-esteem; past traumatic childhood experiences of parents; isolation/lack of family support or networks; stress; tiredness; illness; disability; drug, alcohol or gambling problems; mental health challenges; or family violence. 

These factors were usually interrelated and complex, with no single cause or definitive starting point. AISF’s comprehensive Table 1 further outlines risk and protective factors of child abuse, while the QLD Government website discusses causal factors of child abuse at a deeper level than this article has scope for.

What are the signs of child abuse and neglect?

A brief article like this cannot do justice to the numerous indicators of abuse and neglect in children, especially given signs of abuse present differently depending on the child’s age, stage and experiences. The following is a very brief overview of some of the main indicators to be aware of, while a more comprehensive overview is available if you click on the link to DHHS provided.

How prevalent is child abuse in Australia? 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

  • 1 in 33 (170,200) children in Australia aged 0–17 received child protection services in 2018–19
  • 1 in 6 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children received child protection services
  • Emotional abuse (54%) was the most common type of abuse or neglect substantiated through investigations in 2018–19. This was followed by neglect (21%), physical abuse (15%), and sexual abuse (10%). 
  • A higher proportion of girls (13%) were subject to sexual abuse than boys (6%), while boys had slightly higher percentages of substantiations for neglect and physical abuse.

Common indicators of child abuse and neglect:

  • Actual disclosure of abuse
  • Unexplained bruises, dislocations, bites etc
  • Wearing long jumpers on hot days (covering up)
  • Fear of parents/not wanting to go home
  • Unexplained absences
  • Hunger, dirty/ inappropriate clothes, no lunches 
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hypervigilant, jumpy, startles easily – high anxiety
  • Passive, compliant
  • Lack of boundaries/overly friendly
  • Psychosomatic complaints (unexplained headaches, earaches, stomach aches)
  • Problems concentrating at school/not able to follow schoolwork/developmental delays
  • Aggressive outbursts/inappropriate behaviours
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, regression, bedwetting
  • Sexualised behaviour, knowing things beyond their developmental ages
  • Sexually transmitted diseases

How can I protect children from child abuse?

  • Be informed about how to identify child abuse – creating child safe communities begins with education
  • Demonstrate respect for children and listen to them – they can tell who is genuine and will only disclose or hint at what’s happening for them if they feel safe to do so. 
  • Be informed about what your responsibilities are and how to report child abuse and to whom
  • Raise the alarm if you see anything suspicious – talk with a trusted colleague or supervisor if you are unsure of what to do next – never ignore it
  • Know what services are available and how to access them (eg: Child Protection, Family Services, Family Violence Services etc)
  • Make sure your organisation is a child safe organisation and has all its Child Safety Policies and processes in place – including a Child Safe Code of Conduct

What should I do if I suspect child abuse or a child makes a disclosure?

  • Listen carefully to the child, let them use their own words and go at their own pace 
  • Be mindful of your own emotions; try to stay calm 
  • Tell the child they did the right thing by telling you and let them know you believe them
  • Let the child know what will happen next in an age-appropriate way if you can 
  • Be clear about confidentiality. Avoid making promises you can’t keep such as saying you won’t tell anyone 
  • Make sure of the child’s immediate safety and inform appropriate people who need to be aware
  • Report to authorities as soon as practicable (this may be your supervisor or the child safety officer or directly to your local Child Protection authority) 


  • ANY person who believes, on reasonable grounds, that a child needs protection has a duty of care and must make a report to authorities 
  • You do not have to have proof, just reasonable grounds for your belief 
  • You do not need permission from anyone to make a report 

Is your organisation equipped to identify risks to children?

Empower your people to be aware and identify risks to children. Child Wise delivers child safety training programs to leadership teams, staff and volunteers that work or engage with children and young people in their workplace. Learn more about our child safety training programs here.  

05 March 2021
Category: Blog