Chances are a child you know is being abused. Here’s how to spot the signs.


Content Warning: This post deals with themes of rape and physical abuse. If this raises issues for you please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

I turned 45 this year.  What that means, of course, is that I’ve collected a lot of stories. Recently I was reminded that not all of them are good ones.

"Mrs Harding and Mr Harding* - are getting a divorce,” my mum told me in the car one morning on the way to school. I didn’t know what 'divorce' meant until my mum explained.

“How come?”

My mum paused.

“Well because Mr Harding drinks a lot. And he becomes violent. He hits Mrs Harding.”


I looked out the window but my brain couldn’t make sense of what I was hearing.

When I was in grade four I had a sleepover at my friend Susie’s* house and as we sat in her room dressing our Barbies and listening to Blondie, she nervously giggled about her mum’s current boyfriend, Jason*.

“Sometimes when he’s in the shower, Jason calls me in to ask me a question.”

She made an “ewww” face and we both laughed.  I remember feeling confused and scared and not really understanding why a grown-up man would want a kid to see him naked. We were nine.

At thirteen when I was in high school there were whispers about the ‘quiet girl with the big house’ whose dad sexually abused her.  I’m not entirely sure I understood what I was being told. I certainly know it never occurred to us to speak up.  To tell an adult.  It was information none of us knew what to do with and we didn’t want to interfere.

We never questioned it. We only thought it was weird.


That same year, unbeknownst to me, Jill* (a close classmate) was being regularly raped by an elderly neighbour.  It started with him taking naked photos of her.  Jill later confided to me that he threatened to tell her mum that she ‘asked for it’.  When Jill finally managed to break contact with the man he began turning up at her Saturday job  - a newsagent – and insisting on her serving him. She would go home and vomit.  Jill struggled with mental health issues including severe self-harm for decades. I visited Jill in hospital after she took a hammer to her own body.

Abbey* - a work colleague of mine from my 20s -  revealed to me that her father raped her throughout her childhood.  And yet on her wedding day she desperately wanted him to walk her down the aisle. She explained to me that she swung between loathing him and desperately wanting his love and approval.

From one toxic father to another.  One of my male friend’s earliest childhood memories is watching his father hold his mother’s face over the hot iron. David* spoke of the fear he felt watching his dad chase his mum down the hallway screaming, “I’m gonna kill her!”

Listen to our episode with Sarah Monahan, the child star who revealed the horrific acts of Robert Hughes. (Post continues after audio.)

Last Friday I was the guest speaker at the Queensland Child Protection Week Dinner.  It was a great honour to be there in a room of over 370 people who act as our frontline on child protection.  There were police officers and detectives, of course, but also members of Brave Hearts, ACT for Kids, The Pyjama Foundation, Your Town, the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disabilities and many more organisations and departments whose staff see things and hear things that would make the rest of us cry ourselves to sleep.


These people dedicate their waking hours to keeping our children safe.

But the message I took home on Friday night is that these organisations, those people, are not responsible for keeping our kids safe. We are responsible for keeping our children safe.  It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to protect one.

Authorities will tell you that child abuse and neglect is under-reported. Now take a seat.  Because in 2015-2016, child protection authorities received 355,935 reports of child abuse or neglect.

One child is suffering abuse or neglect every 12 minutes.

What’s worrying is that according to ACT for Kids, 1 in 4 Australian adults say they do not feel confident that they could spot the signs of child abuse. And 40% of Australians don’t know what to do if they suspect a child is being abused.

Australia, we need to learn the signs.  And if we suspect a child is being abused, we must report it.

Below are the signs of child abuse or neglect. If you suspect a child you know is being emotionally, physically or sexually abused – step up and speak up.

Because the truth is, every week is child protection week. It has to be.

Click here to find the numbers to report suspected child abuse in different states.

How to spot the signs

A child who has been, or may be experiencing abuse may show behavioural, emotional or physical signs of stress and abuse.

Some indicators of child abuse include:

  • showing wariness and distrust of adults
  • rocking, sucking or biting excessively
  • bedwetting or soiling
  • demanding or aggressive behaviour
  • sleeping difficulties, often being tired and falling asleep
  • low self-esteem
  • difficulty relating to adults and peers
  • abusing alcohol or drugs
  • being seemingly accident prone
  • having broken bones or unexplained bruising, burns or welts in different stages of healing
  • being unable to explain an injury, or providing explanations that are inconsistent, vague or unbelievable
  • feeling suicidal or attempting suicide
  • having difficulty concentrating
  • being withdrawn or overly obedient
  • being reluctant to go home
  • creating stories, poems or artwork about abuse.

Some indicators of neglect include:

  • malnutrition, begging, stealing or hoarding food
  • poor hygiene, matted hair, dirty skin or body odour
  • unattended physical or medical problems
  • comments from a child that no one is home to provide care
  • being constantly tired
  • frequent lateness or absence from school
  • inappropriate clothing, especially inadequate clothing in winter
  • frequent illness, infections or sores
  • being left unsupervised for long periods.

If you would like to talk to a trained professional please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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

Rebecca Sparrow is the author of Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls) and Find Your Tribe (and 9 other things I wish I'd known in high school).  She co-hosts the award-winning health and happiness podcast The Well with Robin Bailey and #TeamGirls in 10 -  a podcast specifically designed for mothers and daughters. Each year Bec talks to thousands of school students about friendship, resilience and giving back.  She is a proud ambassador of, The Pyjama Foundation and #TeamGirls.

You can follow her on Facebook.

The award-winning podcast Mamamia Out Loud is doing their first live show. There will be laughs, disagreements and you can meet the hosts afterwards! We’re also donating $5 of every ticket price to Share The Dignity so grab your friends and come along to share the love and laughs, get your tickets here.