What is Child Abuse?

Child Abuse is defined in the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 as “the harming (whether physically, emotionally, or sexually), ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or deprivation of any child or young person.”

It includes:

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a child or young person’s emotional, psychological or social well-being and sense of worth is continually battered.

It can include a pattern of criticising, rejecting, degrading, ignoring, isolating, corrupting, exploiting and terrorising a child. It may result from exposure to family violence or involvement in illegal or anti-social activities.

Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms of abuse occur.

The effects of this form of abuse are not always immediate or visible. The long-lasting effects of emotional abuse may only become evident as a child becomes older and begins to show difficult or disturbing behaviours or symptoms.


Neglect is a pattern of behaviour which occurs over a period of time and results in impaired functioning or development of a child or young person. It is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs.

Neglect may be:

  • Physical – failure to provide necessary basic needs of food, shelter or warmth
  • Medical – failure to seek, obtain or follow through with medical care for the child or young person
  • Abandonment – leaving a child or young person in any situation without arranging necessary care for them and with no intention of returning
  • Neglectful supervision – failure to provide developmentally appropriate or legally required supervision
  • Refusal to assume parental responsibility – unwillingness or inability to provide appropriate care for a child or young person

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse can be caused from punching, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, burning or throwing the child. Physical abuse may also result from excessive or inappropriate discipline or violence within the family, and is considered abuse regardless of whether or not it was intended to hurt the child. Physical abuse may be the result of a single episode or of a series of episodes.

Injuries to a child may vary in severity and range from minor bruising, burns, welts or bite marks, major fractures of the long bones or skull, to its most extreme form, the death of a child.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes acts or behaviours where an adult, older or more powerful person uses a child or young person for a sexual purpose.

While it may involve a stranger, most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts.

It includes any touching for sexual purpose, fondling of breasts, buttocks, genitals, oral sex, sexual intercourse, an adult exposing themselves to the child or young person, or seeking to have a child touch them for a sexual purpose. It also includes voyeurism, photographing children or young people inappropriately, involving the child or young person in pornographic activities or prostitution or using the internet and phone to initiate sexual conversations with children or young people.

How Can I Tell? offers more detailed information on all types of child abuse.