Child abuse

Child abuse includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect. Child abuse is more common than you may think. Preventing child abuse is everyone’s responsibility.

Key points about child abuse

  1. Every child has the right to a childhood free from harm.
  2. Signs of child abuse are not always obvious. Abuse often goes undetected and unreported.
  3. If you are worried a child may be being abused, don’t wait and don’t assume someone else is acting.
  4. If you think a child is in immediate danger call the Police on 111. For non-urgent cases contact Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children) on 0508 326 459.
  5. If you are worried about your own behaviour, help is available. Contact a parent support group like Parenthelp 0800 568 856, Parentline 07 839 4536 or the Family Violence Information Line 0800 456 450. 


What is child abuse? 

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. 

What should I look out for? 

Signs of child abuse are not always obvious. A child who's being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. They may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. That’s why we all need to be aware of possible signs of abuse. 

There are general signs that can tell you if a child is upset about something and that abuse may be a cause. These include:

  • moodiness, irritability, excessive crying, becoming more clingy
  • self-harm
  • loss of appetite or changes in eating habits
  • changes in behaviour and performance at school or towards other people
  • acting out aggressively or becoming more quiet and withdrawn
  • depression, anxiety or unusual fears, jumpiness or watchfulness, or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • being afraid to go home, running away
  • difficulty concentrating
  • sleep disturbances, bad dreams/nightmares and bed-wetting
  • sexual behaviour that seems inappropriate for their age or is forceful or coercive
  • unusual comments, questions or ‘hints’ that something may be amiss.

Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can vary. See more specific signs of emotional abuse, physical harm, sexual abuse and neglect.

What should I do if I’m worried about a child? 

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 contact@ot.govt.nz 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. 

When should I seek help if my child is hurt or unwell?

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 on 0800 942 8787, Kidsline on 0800 KIDSLINE (54 37 54) or Youthline on 0800 376 633 or text 234.

You can also contact Oranga Tamariki directly by emailing contact@ot.govt.nz 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.

Who will be involved if my child has been abused?

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. 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 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.

What if I'm worried about my own behaviour?

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 0800 568 856, Parentline 07 839 4536 or The Parenting Place or talk to someone you trust.

To speak to a trained counsellor at any time call or text 1737.

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

Learn more about preventing child abuse.

Learn more

Information, support & resources on child abuse KidsHealth, NZ

References

  1. Child abuse Family Doctor NZ
  2. Safe childhood Unicef NZ
  3. Indicators of child abuse Child Matters, NZ
  4. Child abuse Mayo Clinic, US
  5. Child abuse – worried about a child? KidsHealth, NZ
  6. Find support ACC, NZ
  7. Worried about a child? Oranga Tamariki, NZ
  8. Child protection guidelines NZ Police
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. 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 Last reviewed: 17 Jul 2020