Child abuse

Key points about child abuse

  • Child abuse includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect.
  • Every child has the right to a childhood free from harm.
  • Child abuse is more common than you may think. Preventing child abuse is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Signs of child abuse are not always obvious. Abuse often goes undetected and unreported.
  • If you are worried a child may be being abused, don’t wait and don’t assume someone else is acting. Read below to find out what to do.
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Child abuse can include:

  • emotional abuse, including constant criticism, put downs, name calling, emotional manipulation, or behaviour that makes the child feel scared at home, one parent using a child as a tool against another parent, exposing a child to violence and abuse against others or animals, knowingly exposing a child to significantly frightening or criminal behaviours
  • physical harm, including hitting or excessive discipline, knowingly letting or inciting others to physically harm a child
  • neglect (physical or emotional) – not providing for a child’s basic needs for love and safety, such as failing to ensure a child gets medical care, leaving a child alone unsupervised, knowingly exposing a child to unsafe people
  • sexual abuse of any kind, including inappropriate touching, exposure to inappropriate material or behaviour, or adults initiating sexual conversations with children.

Child abuse is more common than you may think. It happens a lot in New Zealand. It affects children from every type of home, family, religion, race and culture. 

Most child abuse occurs within the family environment but it can happen anywhere – at school, in the larger community (such as sports clubs) or online. A child can experience more than one form of abuse at a time. 

Abuse often goes undetected and unreported. 

Signs of child abuse are not always obvious. Specific signs and symptoms of child abuse depend on the type of abuse and can vary. Keep in mind that even if you see warning signs, it doesn't necessarily mean a child is being abused.

But if you think a child may be being abused, always let the appropriate authorities know. 

Physical abuse

 Signs may include:

  • unexplained injuries, such as bruises, burns, fractures, scalds or grazes
  • injuries that don't match the given explanation.

Emotional abuse

Children may:

  • have delayed or inappropriate emotional development
  • tend to believe they are bad and worthless
  • have problems getting on with others, or be hard to live with
  • become withdrawn or desperately seeking attention
  • have difficulty controlling anger. 

Sexual abuse

Children may:

  • complain of pain or irritation in the genital area, or get infections and urinary problems
  • have blood in their underwear (not due to having their period)
  • start doing things they've grown out of, like crying, wetting or soiling their pants or clinging to someone they trust
  • display sexual behaviour or knowledge that's inappropriate for their age
  • give a coded message or directly say they are being abused. 


Children may:

  • have poor growth or weight gain or be overweight
  • look uncared for, undernourished, constantly dirty or ill
  • seem to have a lot of accidents
  • have untreated or chronic medical conditions
  • perform poorly at school, find it difficult to concentrate. 

Parental behaviour

Sometimes a parent's manner or behaviour sends red flags about child abuse. Warning signs include a parent/caregiver who:

  • shows little concern for the child
  • appears unable to recognise physical or emotional distress in the child
  • blames the child for problems they or their child may be experiencing
  • treats one child significantly differently or worse than another
  • consistently belittles or berates the child, and describes the child with negative terms, such as "worthless" or "evil"
  • expects the child to provide him or her with attention and care and seems jealous of other family members getting attention from the child
  • uses harsh physical discipline
  • demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance
  • severely limits the child's contact with others
  • offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child's injuries or no explanation at all. 

See a more comprehensive list of physical and behavioural indicators of child abuse(external link), including indicators in adult behaviour(external link) at Child Matters, NZ. 

If you are worried a child may be being abused or their wellbeing is in danger, the key message is don’t wait and don’t assume someone else is acting.

  • If you believe a child is in immediate danger call the Police on 111.
  • For non-urgent cases where you think a child may be in an unsafe environment contact Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children) by emailing or phoning 0508 326 459. Lines are open 24/7. They are trained to help find solutions to family problems. 

People who report suspected abuse are protected by the law. Police and Oranga Tamariki would rather know about your concerns so they can investigate, even if you’re worried you might be wrong.

If your child is hurt or unwell and you suspect abuse, it’s very important to seek help straight away. 

If your child needs urgent help, take them to the emergency department of your local hospital. If you're not sure how serious the injury is, it’s best to go to the hospital. The doctors and nurses there can check your child and make sure they are okay. 

If you don't think it's an emergency, there are a number of people who you can see. This could be a health professional such as your family doctor, Plunket nurse or midwife. You could also talk to your child's preschool or school. 

If you are a child or young person and are being hurt or feeling unsafe

If you are a young person and are experiencing abuse of any kind, or feeling unsafe, you can also ask for help. If you can, talk to someone you trust such as a family/whānau member, your family doctor, a teacher at school or a school guidance counsellor.

There are also services that you can contact directly for free such as What’s Up(external link)(external link) on 0800 942 8787, Kidsline (facebook page)(external link) on 0800 KIDSLINE (54 37 54) or Youthline(external link)(external link) on 0800 376 633 or text 234.

You can also contact Oranga Tamariki directly by emailing or phoning 0508 326 459. It is often helpful to have someone support you in this, so find someone you trust if you are able to.

If you take your child to hospital, a health professional with special skills will see your child.

They will examine your child and may do some tests. This depends on the type of harm to your child. The health professional will talk with you about everything and explain what's happening.  

If there are concerns about your child’s safety Oranga Tamariki and the Police may be involved. This usually involves parents and the child being interviewed to understand more about what is happening.

Surviving sexual abuse

Emotional support from significant others, such as family/whānau, and ensuring the safety of the child is most important.

Counselling may help the healing process for a child or young person who has been the victim of abuse. As this is a very specialised area, wherever possible, your child should see an approved counsellor who has experience in this area.

Sometimes a child doesn't want to see someone immediately. They can choose to see a counsellor at a later date.

Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) provides ACC-approved counsellors for children who have been sexually abused. ACC can help with some of the costs of counselling. You can find ACC-approved sexual abuse counsellors in your area at Find Support(external link)(external link). The local organisation you contact can connect you with a therapist who has experience working with children and young people.

You can contact an ACC therapist directly and they will set up an appointment and make the referral to ACC for possible funding.

You can contact your local Citizens' Advice Bureau(external link)(external link) for details of local crisis counselling services, as these differ from centre to centre. The Mental Health Foundation also has information on where to find counselling or therapy(external link)(external link).

If family members seem afraid of you, find you hard to talk to or feel they have to do what you want them to, you might need to consider changing your behaviour.

Help is available. If you want help with your behaviour, call the Family Violence Information Line on 0800 456 450 to find out about the organisations in your area that can help. 

If you are worried about hurting your child, there is help available. Contact a parent support group such as Parenthelp(external link)(external link) 0800 568 856, Parentline(external link)(external link) 07 839 4536 or The Parenting Place(external link)(external link) or talk to someone you trust.

To speak to a trained counsellor at any time call or text 1737(external link)(external link).

Some people abuse children due to unresolved mental health or addiction or alcohol issues. if this is the case for you, talk to your GP or contact the Alcohol & Drug helpline on 0800 787 797(external link)(external link)

Learn more about preventing child abuse(external link)(external link).

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Louise Morgan, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Centre for Psychology, Massey University, Auckland and Juanita Harrison, Acting Manager (Central) & Psychologist Team Leader, Clinical Services Northern, Oranga Tamariki Ministry for Children

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