Signs of child abuse every parent needs to know

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More and more often, we hear in the media of well-known figures revealing they were abused in their childhood. Even more close to home, we may even have a family member or friend reveal their own past trauma. As difficult a topic as it is, thankfully, it’s becoming something more openly discussed. Unfortunately, however, it is still happening. The 2016 ABS Personal Safety Survey (PSS) estimates about 2.5 million Australian adults (approximately 13%) experienced physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood.

It's also disturbing to learn that the majority of adults who reported childhood physical abuse only (97%) and sexual abuse only (86%), knew the perpetrator. This is why it’s important for parents to understand child abuse and its signs.

Child abuse is not just physical abuse. It can come in various forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, grooming, emotional or psychological harm, neglect or family violence.

Children don’t always report if they have been abused, may not know they are being abused or may be good at trying to hide it. As parents, it’s important how to learn to spot the signs of child abuse so that we can start looking into the next steps we can take to put a stop to it. Child abuse can create trauma in the child, which can significantly impact their development and wellbeing into adulthood.

Let's look into some of the most common red flags that may indicate child abuse.

Signs of physical child abuse

Any intentional form of physical violence is considered physical abuse. Examples can include hitting, shaking or strangling. These can include incidents with other students.

Signs of physical abuse include but are not limited to:

  • Unexplained and recurring bruises, cuts burns, and welts on their body
  • Injuries that don’t match the explanation the child has provided
  • Bald patches that look like hair has been pulled out
  • Poor sleep, nightmares
  • Being frightened of parents or carers
  • Drug or alcohol misuse, suicidal behaviour or self-harm
  • Self-stimulatory behaviours such as rocking, headbanging or twirling their hair
  • Regressive behaviour, e.g. bed-wetting
  • Wearing layers of clothing to hide injuries
  • Avoiding physical contact with adults
  • Being overly friendly with strangers
  • Unwillingness to go home
  • Little reaction or emotional responses when hurt or threatened
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Overly compliant, timid, reserved, submissive
  • Unusually anxious, restless, aggressive, disruptive and destructive to self or others

Signs of sexual child abuse

When someone uses their power or authority to involve a child in sexual activity, this is child abuse. This can happen online and offline. It can include activities that involve no physical contact such as sending sexual messages to a child, exposing a sexual body part to a child, or showing pornography to a child.

These are some of the signs to look out for:

  • Injury to the genital or rectal area, including bleeding, discharge, inflammation
  • Injury to areas of the body such as breasts, buttocks or upper thighs
  • Trouble going to the toilet
  • Refusing to undress
  • Wearing layers of clothing
  • Having a sexually transmitted infection
  • Feeling depressed, suicidal, or engaging in self-harm
  • Frequent urinary tract infections
  • Having more knowledge about sex than is age appropriate
  • Age-inappropriate sexual behaviour, such as excessive masturbation or rubbing genitals against other people
  • Sexually explicit art or writing that is not age-appropriate
  • Scared of home, specific places or particular adults
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Headaches, stomach pains or nausea with no medical explanation

Signs of grooming in children

People may also try to prey on a child in person or online, by trying to establish some kind of relationship or emotional connection with them. This is all with the purpose of preparing the child for sexual abuse later. The trouble is that grooming behaviour can be in the guise of caring behaviours. This can include giving the child gifts or making close inappropriate contact.

Signs of a child subjected to grooming include:

  • Developing an unusually close connection with an older person
  • Speaking or acting in ways like their new "friend"
  • Suddenly owning gifts or big sums of money given by the "friend"  
  • Being excessively secretive when using the phone, computer, social media  
  • Not being honest about where they’ve been and whom they’ve been with
  • They may be provided false ID by the "friend" to avoid detection

Signs of neglect in children

Neglect is when a child is not provided with adequate nutrition, housing, medical care, clothing, or supervision.

Signs of neglect include but are not limited to:

  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Not dressed properly for the weather
  • Often hungry, tired
  • Has health or medical issues unattended to
  • Has inadequate, unsafe or unhygienic housing conditions
  • Begging for or stealing food
  • Looking weak or pale
  • Irregular attendance at school

Signs of emotional or psychological abuse in children

Emotional child abuse is when a child is repeatedly rejected, isolated, frightened or threatened.

Signs of emotional abuse include but are not limited to:

  • Delays in development
  • Extremely compliant and submissive
  • Extremely demanding, aggressive, attention-seeking or destructive behaviour
  • Low self-esteem, poor self-image
  • Self-soothing behaviours such as nail biting, hair twirling
  • Unusual mood swings, anxiety, depression, self-harm or suicidal behaviours
  • Overly adult, or overly infantile
  • Fear of failure, excessively high standards
  • Violent drawings or writing

Family violence

Family violence is when a child experiences any of the above from a family member. However, it’s important to remember that a child witnessing or being exposed to such abuse inflicted on another family member is also a form of child abuse.

Family violence

Family violence is when a child experiences any of the above from a family member. However, it’s important to remember that a child witnessing or being exposed to such abuse inflicted on another family member is also a form of child abuse.

What to do if you suspect child abuse

Make notes of your observations and concerns, unusual and changes in their behaviour, what they say, and how they say they feel.

Unfortunately, abuse becomes more serious over time once started.

Having a conversation with the child

It may help to have a relaxed conversation with the child about how they are feeling, letting them know that you have noticed they don’t seem their usual self, they seem different.

The child may tell you what has been happening, however, it’s important to let them openly speak without leading the conversation to what you want them to say. Don’t pressure or judge them and reassure them that you are there if they want to talk.

If the child does disclose details about the abuse, it’s not your job to dig for more details or to counsel the child. Remain calm, thank them for telling you, and tell them that you believe them and that you will try to help. Reassure them that they are not in trouble and they have done the right thing by telling you. However, you cannot tell them you will keep it a secret, as it will need to be reported.

Who to report abuse to

Even if you don’t have proof, if you have a reasonable belief that a child is being abused you should report it. Each state has a child protection authority you can do this through.

If you think the child is in immediate danger, call the police on triple zero (000).

Some occupations are required by law to report suspected cases of child abuse and these can include teachers, doctors, nurses and police.

Useful resources

Tracey Cheung
Written by
Tracey Cheung

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