Signs and symptoms

When identifying children and young people at risk, it is important to observe the signs and symptoms that may indicate they are being abused or neglected. It can be difficult for young victims to talk about what is happening to them as they may be scared, embarrassed, may not understand it or know it is wrong. Children or young people experiencing abuse may show it through their behaviour, emotions or physically. 

Child abuse

This is defined as any kind of behaviour that harms a child or young person physically or emotionally. It may have been a single incident or abuse that has been happening over a long time, and whether it was done intentionally or unintentionally, it is still classed as child abuse. Abuse is often said to be a violation of the child’s rights where there is an implication of trust in the relationship.

There are different types of child abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual and neglect, and it is important that you understand what each one means.

The different types of child abuse are:

  • Physical – this means using physical force to hurt or injure a child intentionally. Children or young people experiencing this type of abuse are likely to show physical signs such as cuts, bruises, fractures or burns.
  • Emotional – this means using inappropriate words or symbolic acts to hurt or damage a child emotionally and mentally. For example, this may involve name calling, rejecting them, frightening them or putting them down and making them lack confidence. 
  • Sexual – this is when a person uses power or authority to involve a child or young person in sexual activity. This can involve physical force, and a range of sexual acts including touching the child’s genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration or exposure to pornography. 
  • Neglect – this means failing to provide the child with the basic necessities they need such as food, clothing, shelter, medical attention or supervision. Without these necessities, a child’s physical and emotional development and wellbeing will be seriously affected. They may be starved, underweight, have little clothing or may have cuts or illnesses that have not been treated. 
  • Witnessing domestic violence – this is when a child experiences a parent or sibling being subjected to abuse or experiences the damage caused to a person or property by violent behaviour. 

Modified from sources: and,-families-and-young-people/child-protection/about-child-abuse/what-is-child-abuse. Accessed on 18/10/2016.

In most cases, children are abused by their parents or carers of either sex, but it could also be a family member, friend or someone from school or the local area. Abuse can damage a child in many ways and can affect them through to adulthood. If a child or young person is unhappy or stressed, then this will usually affect how they behave. These behavioural or physical signs are known as indicators, and it is important that you can recognise the signs and find out what the root cause is. 

However, if a child displays any of these behaviours, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are being abused; it is also important to take into consideration their age and vulnerabilities. For example, they may have a disability or illness that causes certain behaviour or symptoms. The lists below are not exhaustive, but they are indicators to look out for.

Some indicators of child abuse include:

  • Being wary or distrusting of adults 
  • Rocking, sucking or biting excessively 
  • Bedwetting or soiling 
  • Demanding or aggressive behaviour
  • Sleeping difficulties – tired and falling asleep
  • Low self-esteem and confidence 
  • Difficulty relating to adults and peers 
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs 
  • Being accident prone 
  • Broken bones or unexplained bruising, burns or welts in different stages of healing 
  • Being unable to explain any injuries, or providing unbelievable or vague explanations
  • Feeling suicidal or attempting to commit suicide 
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing 
  • Being withdrawn 
  • Being overly obedient 
  • Reluctant to go home 
  • Creating stories, poems or artwork about abuse.

Some indicators of neglect include:

  • Malnutrition, begging, stealing or hoarding food
  • Poor hygiene, matted hair, dirty unwashed skin or body odour
  • Unattended physical or medical problems 
  • Comments from the child indicating no one is home to look after them or they are not being cared for properly 
  • Being constantly tired or unable to focus 
  • Frequent lateness, absence or truancy from school 
  • Inappropriate clothing for the time of year 
  • Ripped, damaged or old clothing 
  • Frequent illnesses, infections or sores
  • Being left unsupervised for long periods.

Lists modified from source: Accessed on 18/10/2016.

Asking questions

Children or young people experiencing abuse often struggle to talk and communicate about it, especially if they are very young, so it can be difficult to find out the information you need. It is best to use open and non-leading questions to make them feel more comfortable and encourage them to give reliable answers. These questions usually start with what, why, where or how, prompting a response more than yes or no so you can find out what the child knows and what they are feeling. 

Examples of open and non-leading questions to ask:

  • When did this happen?
  • What did the person do?
  • Can you tell me a bit more about that?
  • Have you told anyone else about this?
  • Where did this happen?
  • How did it make you feel?

Modified from source: Accessed on 18/10/2016.

You should avoid asking children leading and direct questions as it can confuse them or make them feel uncomfortable and stop them from speaking to you. The questions are often too direct and are inappropriate to use when discussing this matter with a child.

If you are unable to speak to the child, it is worth speaking to the parents and asking them questions as you may be able to judge by their responses or body language whether there is anything you should be concerned about.

Child protection procedures

It is important if you have any concerns or worries about a child or young person that you contact a local Child Protection Service and ask them for assistance and advice. Statutory child protection in Australia is the responsibility of state and territory governments. This information is stated on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare government website:

‘Departments responsible for child protection will provide assistance to vulnerable children who are suspected of being abused, neglected or harmed, or whose parents are unable to provide adequate care or protection. Contacts made to these departments regarding allegations of child abuse or neglect, child maltreatment or harm to a child is called notifications.’

Source: Accessed on 18/10/2016.


Notifications made to these departments will be assessed to determine if intervention is required and to what level. The investigation will involve the department obtaining more detailed information about the child, and making an assessment about the level of harm to the child and their protective needs. This may involve meeting and interviewing the child if it is practical to do so. The aim of the investigation is to determine whether the notification is substantiated or not substantiated. A substantiation would indicate ‘there is sufficient reason to believe that a child has been, is being, or is likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed.’ 

Source: Accessed on 18/10/2016.

Protecting children

The department would then try to ensure the safety of the child through an appropriate level of involvement. The child may be placed on a care and protection order, which is a legal order giving child protection departments some responsibility for a child’s welfare. Or, they may also be placed into out of home care, which is overnight care for children up to 17 years old. 

Reporting a child protection matter

To report a child protection matter, you should contact the relevant agency responsible for child protection in your state or territory. However, if a child is in immediate danger or a life-threatening situation, you would need to call 000.

Here is a list of the child protection authorities across states and territories in Australia:

New South WalesDepartment of Communities and JusticeTel. 132 111 
VictoriaDepartment of Health and Human ServicesTel. 131 278 (after hours emergency)
QueenslandDepartment of Communities, Child Safety and Disability ServicesTel. (07) 3235 9999 or 1800 177 135 (after hours and weekends)
Western AustraliaDepartment for Child Protection and Family SupportTel. 1800 622 258
a/h: (08) 9223 1111 or 1800 199 008
South AustraliaDepartment for Child ProtectionTel. 131 478
TasmaniaDepartment of Health and Human ServicesTel. 1300 737 639
Australian Capital TerritoryCommunity Services DirectorateTel. 1300 556 729 
Northern TerritoryDepartment of Territory Families, Housing and CommunitiesTel. 1800 700 250 
(Source: Child protection agencies (AIHW). (n.d.). Retrieved from )

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