What Is Child Abuse?

There are 4 types of child abuse:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect.

Child abuse can be a single incident or several incidents that take place over time. According to the Child Protection Act 1999, what matters is not the number of incidents, but whether the child:

  • suffered harm, or is at risk of suffering harm*
  • has a parent who is able and willing to protect them.

*You can read more about the definition of harm in the Act: Child Protection Act 1999 (PDF, 1MB)

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when a child suffers physical trauma or injury that is not accidental. It doesn't always leave visible marks. What matters most is the act itself that caused the trauma or injury.

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is when an adult, a stronger child or a teenager uses their power or authority to involve a child in a sexual activity. It can be physical, verbal or emotional and can include:

  • having any kind of sexual contact with a child
  • having sexual relations with a child under 16 years old
  • talking in a sexually explicit way that's not suitable for a child's age
  • sending obscene mobile messages or emails to a child
  • persistently intruding on a child's privacy
  • showing pornographic material to a child or forcing them to watch a sexual act
  • child prostitution.

There are ways you can help to protect a child from sexual abuse, including:

  • recognising the signs of sexual abuse
  • being aware of possible grooming behaviour
  • knowing where to get help.

Find out more about child sexual abuse.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse happens when a child's social, emotional or intellectual development is damaged or threatened. It can include constant:

  • rejection
  • teasing or bullying
  • yelling
  • criticism
  • exposure to domestic and family violence.


Neglect is when a child's health and development are affected because their basic needs are not met. These needs include:

  • food
  • housing
  • health care
  • adequate clothing
  • personal hygiene
  • hygienic living conditions
  • medical treatment
  • adequate supervision.

Signs of child abuse or neglect

Signs of child abuse

Child abuse may be the cause if a child:

  • doesn't trust adults or seems afraid of adults
  • is very demanding or aggressive and doesn't get along with others
  • has trouble sleeping, is often tired or finds it hard to concentrate
  • has little confidence or seems too shy or obedient
  • abuses alcohol or drugs
  • seems to have a lot of injuries and gives unlikely explanations
  • feels suicidal or attempts suicide
  • seems to rock, suck or bite more than other children
  • wets or soils their bed
  • doesn't want to go home
  • creates stories, poems or artwork about abuse.

Signs of child neglect

Children could be neglected if they:

  • beg, steal or hoard food
  • have poor hygiene, matted hair, dirty skin or body odour
  • have physical or medical problems that haven't been treated
  • say no-one is home to take care of them or are left alone for long periods.
  • are always tired
  • are often late for or absent from school
  • wear clothes that are not suitable, especially too little clothing in winter
  • often have illnesses, infections or sores.

Effects of harm

Children may experience many short-term and long-term problems as a result of being harmed, including:

  • emotional effects such as low self esteem, psychological or developmental disorders and difficulty trusting adults.
  • physical effects such as illnesses, physical injuries or death.
  • behavioural effects such as aggression, drug and alcohol abuse and behaviour that makes them vulnerable to other forms of abuse.

Text © The State of Queensland 2012, About Child Abuse, https://www.qld.gov.au/community/getting-support-health-social-issue/about-child-abuse/ Last updated: 17 September 2012; Viewed 26 October 2012.

© S. D. Goeldner, 2012. Last updated August, 2019.

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