Child abuse

Violence in the home harms children

It’s a known fact that children who live in a home where there is violence are significantly more at risk of being the victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect than other children.

Children can be harmed by seeing, hearing and being around violence, and they can also be the direct victims of abuse.

Child abuse is defined in the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act as: “the harming (whether physically, emotionally, or sexually), ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or deprivation of any child or young person.”

As described by Child Matters, child abuse includes:

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a child’s emotional, psychological or social well-being and sense of worth is continually battered. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms of abuse occur.

It can include a pattern of criticising, rejecting, degrading, ignoring, isolating, corrupting, exploiting and terrorising a child. It may result from exposure to domestic violence or involvement in illegal or anti-social activities.

The effects of this form of abuse are not always immediate or visible. Its long-lasting effects may only become evident as a child becomes older and begins to show difficult or disturbing behaviours or symptoms.


Neglect is a pattern of behaviour that occurs over a period of time and results in impaired functioning or development of a child. It is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs.

Neglect may be:

  • Physical Failure to provide necessary basic needs of food, shelter or warmth.
  • Medical Failure to seek, obtain or follow through with medical care for the child.
  • Abandonment Leaving a child or young person in any situation without arranging necessary care for them and with no intention of returning.
  • Neglectful supervision Failure to provide developmentally appropriate or legally required supervision.
  • Refusal to assume parental responsibility Unwillingness or inability to provide appropriate care for a child.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse can be caused from punching, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, burning or throwing a child. Physical abuse may also result from excessive or inappropriate discipline or violence within the family, and is considered abuse regardless of whether or not it was intended to hurt the child. Physical abuse may be the result of a single episode or of a series of episodes.

Injuries to a child may vary in severity and range from minor bruising, burns, welts or bite marks, major fractures of the long bones or skull, to its most extreme form – the death of a child.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse includes acts or behaviours where an adult, older or more powerful person uses a child for a sexual purpose.

While it may involve a stranger, most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts.

It includes any touching for sexual purpose; fondling of breasts, buttocks, genitals; oral sex; sexual intercourse; or an adult exposing themselves to the child, or seeking to have a child touch them for a sexual purpose. It also includes voyeurism, photographing children inappropriately, involving the child in pornographic activities or prostitution, or using the Internet and phone to initiate sexual conversations with children.

How domestic violence affects children

The diagrams below, which are Duluth Power and Control Wheels, show the different ways that children are affected by violence, as well as the ways that they can be supported and nurtured.

Learn more about Power and Control Wheels.

Signs of child abuse

Sometimes a child will tell you that they are being physically or sexually abused. In almost all cases this will be true – believe them. Sometimes you know someone is abusing a child because you see the abuse, or someone tells you about it.

Any child with frequent injuries, or injuries that don't seem to fit the explanation given for them, is possibly being abused. Children who are reluctant to go home, such as after school, or seem afraid of certain adults may be being abused.

Children and young people who are being abused will usually show signs of distress in addition to any physical effects. Symptoms include: changes in behaviour, poor concentration, withdrawal, aggression, sadness, bed-wetting, problems at school, drug and alcohol abuse, copying violent behaviour, attention seeking behaviour, self-blame, and self-harm. Please note that some children are very good at covering up abuse.

Sometimes there might be other causes for these warning signs, so it’s always best to talk to an expert. Contact Child, Youth and Family, a community social worker or a school counsellor or teacher with your concerns.

What if I suspect child abuse?

Phone the Police on 111 if there is immediate danger for a child.

If you are worried that a child is not safe or being well looked after and want to talk to someone about it, you can call Child, Youth and Family on freephone 0508 FAMILY for whatever advice, support or assistance you require. Learn more about reporting a concern.

Phone the Women’s Refuge Crisisline on 0800 REFUGE (0800 733 843) or the It’s Not OK! freephone on 0800 456 450.

If you feel that you may hurt a child yourself, you can also call any of these phone numbers.

Remember, there are many help agencies to support parents. If you notice at an early stage that a family might be in stress, making them aware of these agencies that can help them may make a difference and avert child abuse.

If a child wants to talk about the abuse

Keep calm, and listen to them carefully. Believe them, and let them know that you do.

Acknowledge their strength and courage, and tell them that they've done the right thing by telling you. It’s also very important to reassure them that it's not their fault; they are not to blame.

Write down what they tell you, but don't interview the child by asking lots of questions.

Tell them you will do something about it, and then contact Child, Youth and Family, the police, or a community child protection agency like Jigsaw. Make sure you find someone who will action the case immediately.

If I'm worried I may abuse a child

If you are at immediate risk of hurting a baby or a child at any time, put them in a safe place and phone someone for support – a neighbour, friend, or family member or a helping agency like Plunket or Parent Help. Here are some other vital points:

  • Seek professional help as soon as possible. Talk to your nurse, midwife, doctor, a family support agency, or ring a helpline. You can get free advice over the phone from Child, Youth and Family on freephone 0508 FAMILY; the Women’s Refuge Crisisline on 0800 REFUGE (0800 733 843); or the It’s Not OK! freephone on 0800 456 450.
  • Never hit or smack a baby, child or young person as they are all easily injured and it is against the law. Mild physical punishment can easily escalate into abuse.
  • Never shake a baby or a young child. It can quickly have serious results like brain damage and death.
  • There are many other ways of disciplining children, and hitting or threatening to hit children or young people teaches them that violence is okay – and of course it never is.
  • Let your family and friends know you need help, and take some time out.
  • Don't just keep hoping things will get better: if you or your partner are ‘losing it’ with the children, get help now.
  • Get professional help for your own problems, if you’re depressed or dependent on drugs or alcohol.
  • If you’re a woman experiencing violence, get advice from a Women's Refuge or the police.

A good publication on alternatives to smacking is Choose to Hug. It’s available free from the Office of the Commisisoner for Children, PO Box 5610, Lambton Quay, WELLINGTON 6145 or through its website at

Always put children's safety first, because they are vulnerable and easily hurt. We need to treasure and protect our tamariki.

Free downloads:

Children and Violence pamphlet (PDF)
Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships pamphlet (PDF)
Child, Youth & Family Services factsheet (PDF)
How Violence Affects Children Power and Control Wheel diagram (PDF)
Nurturing Children Power and Control Wheel diagram (PDF)


Mokopuna: Child Advocate Toolkit