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Child abuse

infant holding teddy bear

Child abuse is when an adult causes emotional, sexual or physical harm to a child, or when a child’s basic needs are neglected.

Accidents which cause harm to a child aren’t necessarily child abuse, but serious neglect of a child's safety could be abuse.

Child abuse may sometimes be a one-off incident. But often, abuse takes place repeatedly over a period of time and usually involves more than one kind of abuse. Both one-off incidents and ongoing abuse can result in childhood trauma, undermining the child's belief that the world is good and safe, as well as deeply impacting their brain development and ability to learn.

There are many types of child abuse and all of them can have devastating life-long impacts, and in most serious cases can cause death.

Signs of child abuse

The signs of child abuse vary depending on the age of the child or adolescent, and not all children who display these symptoms have been abused.

Signs and symptoms of child abuse can include:

  • physical injuries
  • repetitive movements i.e. rocking, sucking, biting
  • becoming withdrawn, anxious or clingy
  • suddenly behaving differently
  • depression or indifference
  • delayed development
  • aggressive, violent or disruptive behaviour
  • emotional outbursts or problems dealing with emotions
  • continence issues, including wetting the bed
  • problems sleeping
  • eating disorders or changes to eating patterns
  • risk taking behaviours
  • problems at school
  • disengagement with friends, family and usual activities
  • obsessive or compulsive behaviour
  • using alcohol and other drugs
  • self-harm or thoughts about suicide
  • concerning sexual behaviours or sexual knowledge inconsistent for their age or development
  • problems communicating or learning
  • difficulty managing emotions
  • distrust or fear of adults
  • deliberately hurting other children or animals
  • regressing in skills or development.

Impacts of child abuse

For children and young people who have experienced abuse or neglect, the impacts can be complex and long lasting. The emotional and psychological effects of abuse can be devastating and go on to influence every aspect of a child’s life.

Physical impacts

In some cases, the physical impacts of abuse can be minor (bruises) or they can be severe (broken bones, internal bleeding). As well as causing physical pain and injuries, the lingering emotional impacts of physical abuse can also cause damage.


Childhood trauma can be described as an overwhelming experience that undermines the child's belief that the world is good and safe. It can be the result of one-time events in the community or family (i.e., the loss of a loved one or experiencing a bush fire) where there can be family and community support to assist the child to recover. However trauma can also be the result of ongoing abuse, neglect and violence in the family and/or community, where the continuing set of environmental challenges deeply impacts the healthy development of children.

Brain development

Child abuse can impact on a child’s brain development and their cognitive abilities, particularly in the areas of self-regulation, speech and language. Research shows that children who have experienced abuse struggle more at school and have reported difficulty paying attention and delayed speech and language development. As well as impaired cognitive abilities, child abuse can also create a sustained state of fear and anxiety for the child.

Childhood trauma as a result of abuse can disrupt the brain’s ability to effectively connect and to integrate the body. These disconnections can in some cases make learning impossible.

Psychological impacts

Mental health

Child abuse can have life-long consequences for a child’s mental health. Research has shown that mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and mood disorders (depression) are common among adolescents and adults who suffered abuse as children.

Social difficulties

Children who experience abuse and neglect are more likely to form insecure attachments with people and can impact on a child’s ability to trust and communicate with others and form healthy relationships throughout their life.

Behavioural impacts

Child abuse can lead to behavioural issues in childhood and throughout adolescence. Studies show young people who have experienced abuse have a tendency towards internalising behaviours such as being sad and withdrawn or externalising behaviours such as being aggressive or hyperactive in childhood, which can continue into adulthood. These behaviours are more likely to occur if the abuse is sustained and occurs at more than one developmental stage.

While some children experience lifelong consequences of abuse, others do not. Often, the impacts of child abuse are made up of a combination of the length and severity of the abuse, the environment of the child and the personal qualities of the child. Studies show that having at least one loving care-giver and personal qualities such as good humour, a sense of independence, optimism and self-esteem can reduce the negative impacts of child abuse.

Getting help

Worried about yourself, a friend or another family member? Get help here.

Find out more

For more information on child abuse, including information on reporting child abuse, please refer to the DHHS website.