Child Abuse

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Government of SA - Child Abuse

Sometimes children are abused or neglected by their parents or carers.

Some people think it is only abuse if a child is physically hurt. Children are also abused when they are made to feel worthless or unloved, when they live with violence or their basic needs are ignored. This can be just as harmful and the effects can last a lifetime.Photo of eyes

About child abuse and neglect

Child abuse and neglect is when a child is physically, emotionally or sexually harmed. It is also when their health, safety or wellbeing needs are not being met by their family.

Child abuse can happen in families of any income, culture or religion. It often happens over a long period of time, but single one-off events can be abuse too. The effects of abuse and neglect are serious and can last a lifetime.


Physical abuse is when a child’s body is harmed by things such as punching, hitting, shaking, biting or burning. There may be cuts, bruises or broken bones. Sometimes there are no signs because the injuries are internal. In extreme cases, children can die.

A child’s physical needs can also be neglected. They may not have a place to live, or live somewhere that isn’t safe. They might not have enough food or clothes, or not be kept clean. They might be left alone or not be well supervised.

It is also neglect when a child is not given the health care they need, including mental health care, or when parents don’t make sure the child goes to school and gets an education.


Emotional abuse is just as harmful as physical abuse. It is when a child is treated in ways that make them feel scared, worthless or alone. It can be less obvious which means others may not notice it or do anything about it. It can build up over time.

A parent might:

Family violence

Living with family violence harms children emotionally, even if they are not the direct victim. It affects their growing brain and can delay their development.

Children can feel they are to blame for the violence. They can feel powerless and scared when a loved parent is mistreated, and ashamed that they can’t stop it. They can worry about family members or pets being harmed.

Children can also be physically harmed when there is violence. They may get caught up in what’s going on, or be intentionally hurt as a way of ‘getting at’ the other parent. Children may be neglected because family life is so disrupted.

Children have a right to be safe and cared for in their own home. Child abuse and neglect is against the law.

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is when an adult or older or stronger child persuades, tricks or forces a child into sexual activity. It includes sexual acts, inappropriate touching, showing the child pornography, letting them watch adults having sex or involving them in prostitution. They may use threats or bribes to keep the child silent.

While abuse by strangers does happen, most sexual abuse is by someone a child knows and trusts.

Why does child abuse happen?

Not all parents mean to cause harm to their children. Some may be struggling with their own problems, or might not know better ways to care for children. Parents might:

There are services that can help parents to look after their children well, even when they are under pressure.

Child abuse and discipline

Some parents hit children when they are angry with the child’s behaviour. This can cross the line into child abuse. If you feel like hitting your child, it can help to ask yourself:

Some parents have grown up with hitting or smacking and may not know other ways to teach children.

It can help to remember that hitting an adult is against the law. Children are smaller and less able to protect themselves.

Effects on children

When children are abused their trust in others is broken. This affects how they form relationships in the future and how they interact with other people. It can make them feel worthless, and they are more likely to develop low self-esteem and mental health problems. They can think that what’s happening is ‘normal’.

They can be more likely to do risky things, e.g. using drugs and alcohol, having unsafe sex, getting into fights, running away or breaking the law.

Abuse can change how a child’s brain develops and how they learn. It can also make it harder for them to manage their feelings and behaviour.

As adults they can be at risk of getting into relationships where there is abuse. This repeats the cycle. Even if you don’t see the effects of abuse straight away, the harm can go on for generations.

Break the cycle of abuse. Even if you don’t see the effects of abuse straight away, the harm can go on for generations.

If a child tells you someone is harming them

Children may be scared they will get into trouble or cause a lot of problems if they tell. They often feel no-one will believe them or that they are to blame.

Take action if a child tells you someone is harming them. You may be the only person they tell.

If you need help to look after your child

If you easily get upset and angry there are services that can help you to manage these feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your doctor is a good place to start.

You could also:

Child protection is everyone’s business

Child abuse and neglect can be prevented or stopped. Everyone can help make sure children are safe.

In the ACT there are laws to protect children, and certain people must make a report if they suspect child abuse. This applies to doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists, police, probation officers, social workers, teachers, family day carers, clergy and those working where services are provided to children, including sports.

The ACT’s Child, Youth Protection Services and the Police have a legal responsibility to protect children. They investigate reports of child abuse and remove children who are at serious risk and cannot be kept safe at home.

People in the community can also report their concerns. It is important to do this even if you think it is not your business or you don’t want to get involved. You could stop a child from being harmed and help a family to get support.

If you suspect a child is being abused, call the Child Concern Report Line on 1300 556 729. They can keep your details confidential.

Finding help


Child Concern Report Line

If you are worried a child is being abused or neglected


National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service Information, support, telephone and web counselling for people experiencing domestic and family violence or sexual assault

Kids Helpline

Phone, web or email counselling, resources and activities for children and young people 5–25 years

If the is violence in your family

If there is violence in your family it is important to seek help. It doesn’t usually stop by itself.

If you or your children are in immediate danger phone the Police on 000, or 131 444 for Police attendance. You can also call the Domestic Violence Gateway on 1800 800 098.

Looking for more information

ParentLink - for other parenting guides, online parenting information:

Child and Family Centres - for parenting information and support

Raising Children’s Network - covering topics for parenting newborns to teens

This guide’s content was produced by Parenting SA.

© Department of Education and Child Development, Government of South Australia. Reproduced with permission and adapted by the ACT Government to reflect Australian Capital Territory laws (11/17).

Important: This information is not intended to replace advice from a qualified practitioner.

Published by ParentLink
Community Services Directorate, GPO Box 158, Canberra ACT 2601, email, telephone 13 34 27.

ACT Government Publication No. 17/0608 (November 2017).

The text for this topic is copyright Department of Health, Government of South Australia.