What is Child Abuse?

Generally, there are five types of abuse that constitute child abuse. There are no universal definitions, so we have provided only a summary here from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Child abuse can be when someone does something harmful, or does not provide for or protect, a child or young person.  The World Health Organisation (1999) defines child abuse as: “Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child's health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.”

Please keep in mind that definitions of types of abuse do vary. Below you will see six types of child abuse as described by the National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma. The intention of this page is to provide an overview of abuse but it is important that you do not need to be an expert in the types of abuse. Ultimately, if you are worried that something isn’t right with a child or there is a child disclosure, you need to report it to the relevant authorities.

Child abuse can cause significant and long-lasting emotional, physical and behavioural damage. Sport is a particularly vulnerable area for potential child abuse because it:

  • involves a large number of people under the age of 18
  • can involve overnight and away trips (e.g. training camps or competitions)
  • usually involves close rapport between adults and children, where the adults are in positions of trust and able to assert authority and power over children. Child abuse can occur within sport, but also a club volunteer could notice that something isn’t right with a child or a child discloses something to them outside of the sport.

Types of child abuse


Sexual abuse/sexual misconduct


Any sexual act or sexual threat imposed on a child or young person. This can include exposure to inappropriate sexual behaviour or material. For example, suggestive behaviour, inappropriate touching or voyeuristically watching an athlete shower or change clothes. In most states and territories of Australia, by law, children (under 16 years of age) do not have the ability to consent to any sexual activity with an adult. It is against the law for adults in a position of power or authority (e.g. Coach, Manager, Selector, MPIO, Committee member) to engage in any form of sexual activity with a child.


Physical abuse


Non-accidental injury and/or harm to a child or young person, caused by another person such as a parent, care-giver or even an older child. For example, physically punishing a young person for losing a game by hitting, kicking, throwing equipment, pushing or shoving.


Emotional abuse


Behaviours that may psychologically harm a child or young person. For example, threatening language, bullying, ridicule, personal abuse and comments designed to demean and humiliate. Persistent negative comments to a child or young person.




Failing to provide a child or young person with basic physical and emotional necessities, harming them or putting them at risk of harm. For example, keeping the best young player on-field to win the game despite having an injury or making children play or train in excessive heat. Over-training young athletes and/or denying a child their basic rights (access to toilets, water and food).


Family violence


Sometimes known as domestic violence, means violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family (the family member), or causes the family member to be fearful (Family Law Act).  


Organised sexual abuse


This can include a range of circumstances where multiple children are subject to abuse from multiple people. This can include organized child pornography or child prostitution. 


Indicators of abuse

It is important that people working with children are aware of the indicators of child abuse and have the confidence to respond to any indication that a child may have been abused. Indicators can be identified in various ways. Children and young people may tell an adult about the abuse occurring (what is known as a disclosure), however you may identify injuries on a child or young person that could lead you to believe they are at risk of abuse. Some indicators of child abuse are:

  • bruising, particularly in the face, head or neck region
  • multiple bruising or injuries - for example, burns, scalds, sprains, dislocations or fractures
  • injury left untreated
  • differing versions of how an injury occurred
  • child/relative advising of abuse
  • a child, referring to someone else being abused, may mean him/herself
  • sexual behaviour that is inappropriate for the age of the child
  • talking about sexual acts, pornography, sexualised questions to adults or other children (that are inappropriate for the age of the child)
  • nightmares/bedwetting/going to bed fully-clothed
  • a high level of distrust of other people
  • an inability to relate well with adults and/or children
  • extreme attention-seeking behaviour, disruptive or aggressive behaviour and bullying
  • seeking indiscriminate or inappropriate adult affection.

The presence of one indicator does not necessarily suggest that a child is the subject of abuse. People working/volunteering with children need to consider the context in which the indicators are observed and use common sense.

If you feel any doubt take a look at our state/territory specific information.

Disclaimer: These definitions and indicators have been included as a guide only. They do not replace the need for consultation with professionals who work in the area of child abuse.