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Understanding the effects of child abuse and neglect


A child suffers physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect every 11 minutes in Australia - and that’s with thousands of cases going unreported – according to statistics.

Child abuse is a harrowing social and public health issue. It can refer to physical and mental harm inflicted on a child by a parent, caregiver, or peer, leading to damaging effects and often long-term consequences.

Acts of child abuse and neglect

Child abuse doesn't just include intentional acts; unintentional acts or omissions can also amount to abuse with devastating lifelong consequences. The most common behaviours that amount to child abuse include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional mistreatment
  • Sexual abuse
  • Exposure to family violence
  • Neglect

Socio-economic disadvantage, social isolation, or being under the care of someone with a mental illness or alcohol and drug dependency are also factors that contribute significantly to the mistreatment of a child.

Positively supporting a child with a good home environment, quality school experiences and healthy teacher relationships can help a child become more resilient, confident and more likely to communicate if they are experiencing a form of abuse.

Effects of child abuse and neglect

Abuse and neglect affect each child differently. It's impossible to provide a comprehensive list of all the possible adverse impacts, however some common symptoms of abuse and neglect include:

  • Trauma and stress affecting the developing brain – The Centre of the Developing Child at Harvard University has found that trauma and stress can have damaging and psychological effects on a young brain.
  • Changes in behaviour – This isn't limited to just physical behaviour; it includes psychological, emotional and social changes.
  • Attachment and interpersonal relationship problems – This is especially prevalent in babies who are exposed to abuse and neglect. They are likely to experience difficulties later forming relationships, haunted by feelings of insecurity and disorganisation.
  • Learning and developmental problems – Abuse from a young age can cause developmental problems affecting a child’s capabilities to stay focused, learn and feel confident in themselves.
  • Mental health problems – Many abused children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many children who have PTSD also have attention deficit disorders, oppositional defiant and conduct disorders, anxiety, psychotic and adjustment disorders or struggle with substance abuse.
  • Depression – Abused and neglected adolescents are reportedly three times more likely to experience depression than those who did not experience the same trauma.
  • Eating disorders – These include anorexia and bulimia, and are highly prevalent in cases of sexual abuse.
  • Youth suicide – Multiple studies have found that survivors of child abuse are at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide and accidental drug overdose due to associated feelings of shame and internal blame.

Factors contributing to the impact of abuse and neglect

The effects of child abuse and neglect are often circumstantial and depend on a variety of individual experiences and personalities. However, many factors contribute to the impact that abuse has on a child, including the age of the child and their relationship to the perpetrator, the severity and type of abuse or neglect, and the child’s perception of this mistreatment also contribute to its devastating toll on young lives.

Long-term effects of child abuse and neglect in adulthood

Survivors of child abuse and neglect often experience the consequences of it throughout adulthood. Unfortunately, these long-term effects can include:

  • Difficulties in forming and maintaining close relationships
  • Physical and mental health problems 
  • Using substances to self-medicate
  • Sexual and physical violence in adult life
  • Difficulties in trusting people in authority and institutions
  • Experiencing long term barriers to stable and safe housing
  • On-going involvement with police and the legal system

Survivors can also experience challenges in parenting their own children due to a gap in knowledge and the challenges created by the factors listed above.

To learn more about the effects of child abuse and neglect for adult survivors, please visit the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

How you can help

Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility and a big part of this is understanding the impact of child abuse and knowing how you can help prevent it.

Act for Kids outlines a few simple, yet powerful things you can do to prevent child abuse and neglect:

  • Seek support – If you’re a parent needing support, there are many free services available to help with different issues, from budgeting to parenting help.
  • Listen – Take time to engage with the kids in your life to listen and build trust. This is important as it gives kids several safe people in their lives, not just their parents.
  • Offer help – Support fellow parents by allowing them to let out their stress and feelings. If you’re worried or overwhelmed, you can encourage them to seek help from a doctor, counsellor or helpline.
  • Access resources – Local authorities or support services can help families with any issues that might be causing stress or compromising the safety of their children. You can remain anonymous while still being the person to make a real difference in a child’s life.

For more information, head to the Child Family Community Australia resource published on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website, or Act for Kids website.

Access justice with Shine Lawyers

Shine Lawyers have a team of abuse lawyers who can help survivors access the justice and acknowledgement they deserve. If you or a loved one has suffered child abuse or neglect, our team may be able to help. Contact us to schedule a confidential and no-obligation consultation to discuss your options.

If you need support or someone to talk to about the issues mentioned in this blog, contact Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call Police on 000.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: September 3, 2020.

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