What is child abuse?

Content warning

This article discusses sexual assault.

If you’re currently in distress, please head to 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) for support.

Child abuse is any behaviour that harms a child (in this case anyone under 18). It can take many forms, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and exploitation.

Child abuse is against the law. If you or a child you know is in immediate danger, you should call Police on 000.

If you’ve been abused, or know someone that has, one of the best things you can do is tell a trusted person. The effects of abuse on a child are serious and long-lasting. No matter when the abuse has occurred, whether in the past or it’s something that’s ongoing, you can always get help and support.

This can help if:

  • you want information about child abuse

  • you know someone who might have been abused

  • you want help dealing with abuse.

Aerial view of skater boy

Types of abuse

Abusive behaviour involves treating someone with cruelty or violence. It often happens regularly or repeatedly. There are four main types of abuse:

  • Physical abuse: Any use of physical force against a child that doesn’t happen by accident and causes injury. Read more about physical abuse here.

  • Sexual abuse: Any type of sexual involvement or contact between a child and an adult. Sexual abuse can be voyeurism (spying on or watching a child), sexual acts and incest (sex between family members). For more information on sexual abuse, read our article about sexual assault.

  • Emotional abuse: A pattern of denying a child love, approval and security, or mistreating a child in the way an adult speaks to them or acts towards them. Bullying, yelling, isolating, criticising, terrorising, ignoring and shaming are all examples of emotional abuse.

  • Neglect: Failing to provide a child with the things they need to survive and grow, such as shelter, food, hygiene, supervision, medical attention, education or safety.

Why are children abused?

Child abuse is never okay, irrespective of the reason. Some reasons people give as to why they abuse children include:

  • a desire to feel powerful

  • they themselves experienced abuse as children

  • they don't understand that children have a right to feel safe

  • they think it's okay or appropriate (it's not, ever).

Effects of child abuse

Child abuse is a form of trauma, and your response to that trauma can show up in your life in different ways. If you’ve been abused as a child, it can lead to:

  • shame/self-blaming

  • anger towards the abuser

  • mood swings

  • anxiety or depression

  • fear of getting close to and trusting people

  • fear of, or an inability to talk about, what happened

  • sadness, confusion and low self-esteem

  • flashbacks, nightmares and reliving the abuse

  • denial that it happened

  • trouble at school with learning new things and socialising with others.

Child abuse and the law

Child abuse is illegal. In some parts of Australia, every adult is legally required by the law to report child sexual abuse if they know it is happening.

If you are a survivor of child abuse, one of the best things you can do is talk to someone you trust - like a friend, parent, family member, or teacher – who can help you through the process. If the abuse is recent or ongoing, they can help ensure you are safe and prevent the abuse from happening again.

Even if the abuse was years ago, it’s very likely that you are still affected by what happened to you. There are people who want to talk to you and support you through your recovery journey.

Getting help

The journey to recovery from child abuse can feel intimidating, but you don’t have to go it alone: there are always people available to help and support you. There are things you can do to deal with child abuse and its effects.

  • Talk to someone you trust about it. This could be a friend or family member. It could also be a doctor, counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist, trusted teacher, other family member or health worker.

  • Report the child abuse to police. They can help you stay safe and make sure that the person who abused you doesn’t go on to hurt anyone else.

  • If you’ve experienced child abuse, remember that it wasn’t your fault. The responsibility lies with the adult who abused you, no matter the circumstances.

  • Talk to other people who have experienced child abuse. Support groups for child abuse victims are a good place to meet other survivors who know how you feel. You don’t have to deal with this on your own.

Support services

If you require assistance, or would like to talk to a trained professional about child abuse and how to report it please call one of these services:

Kids Helpline

Provides free 24/7 telephone and online counselling for young people aged between 5 and 25.

Phone: 1800 55 1800


Provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services, mental health support and emotional assistance via telephone and online.

Phone: 13 11 14

Blue Knot Foundation

Provides phone and email-based support for adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse, as well as for their supporters and the professionals who work with them.

Phone: 1300 657 380. Available 9 am to 5 pm AEST, seven days a week.


Provides an information and support line can be accessed by anyone wanting information or support relating to child sexual assault.

Phone: 1800 272 831. Available 8.30 am to 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday.

Child Protection Hotline

Check this link to find your state's child protection hotline.

What can I do now?

  • Work on building a variety of coping skills.