How Do I know if a Child is Being Abused?

Every parent’s fear is that their child will be abused. There are four different types of abuse: Neglect, Emotional, Physical and Sexual. There are common physical and behavioral signs that may indicate any of these types of abuse. The presence of one of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse or neglect. When I am assessing for likelihood of abuse, I look for clusters of the signs. If I see many of the signs together, I begin to suspect abuse and I report to a Government body (Police or Welfare) who can investigate and protect the child.

Although every family’s circumstances are different, there are a few risk indicators that may suggest a higher probability of child abuse. Just because the risk indicators are present, it does not mean that children will be harmed. The indicators are used as a measure of assessing risk, not actual abuse.

These are some of the risk factors associated with possible abuse:

* social or geographic isolation of the child, young person or family, including lack of access to extended family,

* previous abuse or neglect of a brother or sister,

* family history of violence including domestic violence,

* physical or mental health issues for the parent or caregiver affecting their ability to care for the child or young person,

* the parent or caregivers’ abuse of alcohol or other drugs affecting their ability to care for the child or young person,

* Single parent families where the parent has multiple friends come to stay.

The signs below are POSSIBLE signs of abuse. The presence of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse has been, or is, occurring. If you have concerns then you should report them to the Welfare Agency in your State, or to the Police.


Signs in children

  • Low weight for age and/or failure to thrive and develop,
  • untreated physical problems eg sores, serious nappy rash and urine scalds,
  • extreme anxiety about being abandoned, which is not age-appropriate,
  • child not adequately supervised for their age,
  • scavenging or stealing food and focus on basic survival,
  • poor standards of hygiene, i.e., child consistently unwashed,
  • extended stays at school, public places, other homes,
  • extreme longing for adult affection,
  • poor or pale complexion and poor hair texture.

Signs in parents or caregivers

  • Unable or unwilling to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, safe home conditions,
  • leaving the child without appropriate supervision,
  • abandonment of child,
  • withholding physical contact or stimulation for prolonged periods,
  • unable or unwilling to provide psychological nurturing.

Sexual Abuse:

Signs in children

  • Child or child’s friend telling you about it, directly or indirectly,
  • describing sexual acts,
  • going to bed fully clothed,
  • sexual knowledge or behaviour inappropriate for the child’s age,
  • regressive behaviour eg sudden return to bed-wetting or soiling,
  • bruising or bleeding in the genital area,
  • sexually transmitted viruses,
  • bruising to breasts, buttocks, lower abdomen or thighs,
  • self-destructive behaviour eg drug dependency, suicide attempts, self-mutilation,
  • child being in contact with a known or suspected perpetrator of a sexual assault,
  • anorexia or over-eating,
  • adolescent pregnancy,
  • unexplained accumulation of money and gifts,
  • persistent running away from home.

Signs in parents or caregivers

  • Exposing a child to prostitution or pornography or using a child for pornographic purposes,
  • intentional exposure of a child to sexual behaviour of others,
  • previous conviction or suspicion of child sexual abuse,
  • coercing a child to engage in sexual behavior with other children,
  • verbal threats of sexual abuse,
  • denial of adolescent’s pregnancy by family.

Physical abuse:

Signs in children

  • Bruising to face, head or neck, other bruising and marks which may show the shape of the object that caused it eg belt buckle, hand print,
  • lacerations and welts,
  • explanation of injury offered by the child is not consistent with the injury,
  • adult bite marks and scratches,
  • abdominal pain caused by ruptured internal organs, without a history of major trauma,
  • fractures of bones, especially in children under three years old,
  • burns and scalds (including cigarette burns),
  • drowsiness, vomiting, fits or retinal hemorrhages, which may suggest head injury,
  • multiple injuries or bruises,
  • swallowing of poisonous substances, alcohol or other harmful drugs,
  • dislocations, sprains, twisting,
  • general indicators of female genital mutilation which could include: having a special operation, difficulties in toileting and reluctance to be involved in sport or other physical activities where the child was previously interested.

Signs in parents and caregivers

  • Explanation of injury offered by the parent is not consistent with the injury,
  • a parent or caregiver says that they fear injuring their child,
  • family history of violence,
  • history of their own maltreatment as a child,
  • frequent visits with their child or children to health or other services with unexplained or suspicious injuries, swallowing of non-food substances or with inner complaints.

Emotional abuse: All types of abuse and neglect harm children psychologically, but the term ‘emotional abuse’ applies to behavior which destroys a child’s confidence.

Signs in children

  • Constant feelings of worthlessness about life and themselves,
  • persistent running away from home,
  • inability to value others,
  • lack of trust in people,
  • lack of people skills necessary for daily functioning,
  • extreme attention-seeking behaviour,
  • other behavioural disorders eg bullying, disruptiveness, aggressiveness,
  • exposure to domestic violence,
  • suicide threats or attempts.

Signs in parents or caregivers

  • Constant criticism, belittling, teasing of a child, or ignoring or withholding praise and attention,
  • excessive or unreasonable demands,
  • persistent hostility and severe verbal abuse, rejection and scapegoating,
  • belief that a particular child is bad or ‘evil’,
  • using inappropriate physical or social isolation as punishment,
  • domestic violence.

Remember, the above are only possible signs of abuse. The presence of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse and neglect has been, or is, occurring. If you have concerns you should report them now.

To view more of Megan’s articles on child sexual abuse, protective behaviours, and other related childhood issues, please visit her list of blogs. Megan’s journal also contains several social stories to help you make sense of how to approach discussions on child protection with your child.