What is child abuse?

There are four different types of child abuse:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect.

Child abuse can be a single incident, or can be a number of different incidents that take place over time.

Under the Child Protection Act 1999, it does not matter how much a child is harmed, but whether a child:

  • has suffered harm, is suffering harm, or is at risk of suffering harm
  • does not have a parent able and willing to protect them from harm.

Harm is defined as any detrimental effect of a significant nature on the child's physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing (section 9 of the Child Protection Act 1999). For harm to be significant, the detrimental effect on a child's wellbeing must be substantial or serious, more than transitory and must be demonstrable in the child's presentation, functioning or behaviour.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering, non-accidental physical trauma or injury. Physical abuse can include:

  • hitting
  • shaking
  • throwing
  • burning
  • biting
  • poisoning.

Physical abuse does not always leave visible marks or injuries. It is not how bad the mark or injury is, but rather the act itself that causes injury or trauma to the child.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when an adult, stronger child or adolescent uses their power or authority to involve a child in sexual activity.

Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional and can include:

  • kissing or holding a child in a sexual manner
  • exposing a sexual body part to a child
  • having sexual relations with a child under 16 years of age
  • talking in a sexually explicit way that is not age or developmentally appropriate
  • making obscene phone calls or remarks to a child
  • sending obscene mobile text messages or emails to a child
  • fondling a child in a sexual manner
  • persistently intruding on a child's privacy
  • penetrating the child's vagina or anus by penis, finger or any other object
  • oral sex
  • rape
  • incest
  • showing pornographic films, magazines or photographs to a child
  • having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner
  • forcing a child to watch a sexual act
  • child prostitution.

For more information about child sexual abuse and to download a copy of the booklet Child sexual abuse – Things you need to know.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a child's social, emotional, cognitive or intellectual development is impaired or threatened. It can include emotional deprivation due to persistent:

  • rejection
  • hostility
  • teasing/bullying
  • yelling
  • criticism
  • exposure of a child to domestic and family violence.


Neglect occurs when a child's basic necessities of life are not met, and their health and development are affected. Basic needs include:

  • food
  • housing
  • health care
  • adequate clothing
  • personal hygiene
  • hygienic living conditions
  • timely provision of medical treatment
  • adequate supervision.