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Identifying and recognising abuse

Abuse can involve one or all of:

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

There are a number of signs that could indicate a child has been or is being abused or neglected. This information will help you to know what to look for to pick up signs of abuse in your child with a disability, especially children with communication difficulties.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse covers physical injury from actions such as:

  • punching
  • beating
  • shaking
  • biting
  • pulling
  • burning or otherwise harming a child.

Physical abuse might also include:

  • restraining a child in an unsafe way
  • using medication that has not been advised
  • over medicating to restrict the actions of a child
  • inappropriate kinds of discipline, including withholding food or removing essential equipment.

Signs of physical abuse

Signs of physical abuse include:

  • bruising in unlikely places that have no explanation
  • bite marks
  • pressure marks
  • burns
  • and unexplained fractures.

Behaviours your child might show if they are being physically abused include:

  • being unusually wary of physical contact with adults
  • being frightened of a certain caregiver
  • offering an unlikely explanation of injuries or being overly withdrawn or timid.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when someone forces or entices a child or young person to take part in sexual activity, either directly, as an observer or via the internet.

Signs of sexual abuse

Physical signs of sexual abuse include:

  • injuries to private areas, for example  breasts, buttocks, inner thighs and genitals
  • discomfort when going to the toilet
  • inflammation and infection of genital areas
  • frequent urinary tract infections
  • having a sexually transmitted disease.

Other signs of sexual abuse might include:

  • inappropriate sexual behaviour or explicit sexual knowledge for their age
  • showing excessive fear when being bathed or having a nappy changed
  • sleep disturbances or night terrors
  • uncharacteristic bed wetting
  • loss of appetite
  • hurting themselves
  • obsessive and compulsive washing and out-of-character behaviours such as tantrums, ‘melt-downs’, aggression, withdrawal or crying.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behaviour directed at a child or young person where  their self- esteem is undermined over time. It can be caused by bullying, frequent put-downs, isolation, and setting unrealistic expectations that make a child feel worthless or inadequate.

Signs of emotional abuse

Physical signs of emotional abuse can include delays in physical development and failure to thrive or slower developmental progress (not related to their disability).

Behaviours your child might show if they are being emotionally abused include:

  • aggression
  • antisocial and/ or destructive behaviour
  • easily frustrated
  • unexplained mood swings
  • low self-esteem
  • poor relationships with peers
  • fear of the dark
  • fear of being left alone with, or clingy to certain people.


Neglect is the ongoing failure to provide for the child or young person’s basic needs. It could be deliberate or unintentional. This can include not taking precautions to ensure the child’s safety (eg not getting medical care and treatment) and not providing adequate food, clothing or shelter.

Signs of neglect

Physical signs of neglect for children include being:

  • regularly dirty and unwashed
  • left unsupervised for long periods of time
  • consistently hungry and tired
  • prone to illness or having untreated medical conditions.

Children might also be delayed in their physical development and have slower developmental progress (not related to their disability).

Behaviours your child might show if they are being neglected include:

  • stealing or hoarding food
  • gorging on food
  • poor social skills
  • signs of poor attachment to carers
  • irregular school attendance.


Parenting SA

Phone: 08 8303 1660
Email: health.parentingsa [at] sa.gov.au
Fax: 08 8303 1653