The warning signs of child abuse and how to respond

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Both boys and girls may experience sexual abuse.
Both boys and girls may experience sexual abuse.

Here Moruti Pitso, child protection and advocacy manager for World Vision SA shares with Parent24 how parents can spot signs of physical, sexual, verbal and emotional maltreatment. 

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, that someone could harm their child.

But given that an estimated 40% of children experience ill-treatment, including abuse, it is critically important that both parents and caregivers recognise warning signs and take action to protect children.

Abuse can be defined as the intent to cause harm, and includes physical, sexual, verbal and emotional maltreatment as well as neglect – not providing children with proper care, such as food, shelter and clothing.

Child abuse cuts across society and is found in families at all income levels. While we teach children to be wary of strangers, too often, abuse happens at the hands of people we know.

Sometimes, frustration and anxiety may result in parents taking out their anger on the children in their care. Other times, a family friend or relative may take advantage of the trust in them to mistreat a child.

The sad truth is that children are harmed in their homes, often by family members, at school, and by people they know, as well as by strangers.

Also read: 'The results are incredibly detrimental': A look into the widespread issue of grooming and sexual abuse by teachers

Abuse warning signs

The following behaviour may signal that a child is experiencing abuse or mistreatment:

• A child who withdraws from their parents, other family members, or even from other children

• Unexplained crying, sadness, anger

• A sudden loss of self-confidence

• Reluctance to talk or open up

• Children who have become violent to others

• Children showing inappropriate sexual behaviour towards other children

• Changes in sleep patterns, including nightmares

• Changes in hygiene, such as refusing to bath, or bathing too often

• Marks, bleeding, or bruising on the body including on the child’s private parts

• Broken bones

• Absence from school, or not wanting to leave the school and go home

• Rebellious or defiant behaviour

• Risky behaviour, such as alcohol or drug-taking

• Attempts to run away 

• Suicide attempts

Both boys and girls may experience sexual abuse. Specific signs and symptoms may vary, depending on the case, the age of the child, and his or her personality. Note that the warning signs above are not definite indicators of abuse. There may be other factors at play.

How to respond

It’s important to take action when you see one or more of the signs above. Talk to your child and ask them if there is anything that has been bothering them.

Try not to scare your child, as this can further traumatise the child, especially if they have been threatened by the perpetrator.

Children may be reluctant to report abuse if they have been threatened with further harm, if they think they might get into trouble, or if by reporting the abuse their family might separate or experience financial hardship.

Be very gentle with your child in these conversations. Reassure them that they won’t get into trouble, that they are loved and that what happened was not their fault.

If you are unable to talk to the child, or you still suspect abuse after talking to him or her, it is your responsibility to lay a charge at your nearest police station. Try to keep the child safe.

This may mean taking the child to stay with family members or keeping him or her out of school until the situation is resolved. If you are not the child’s parent, protect the child’s identity when discussing the situation with others. 

Also see: Protecting children starts close to home, with breaking the silence

Your legal responsibility

If you don’t report a child protection issue, such as abuse or neglect, you can also be held liable. You must immediately report child abuse if you suspect that it is occurring.

Where to get help:

Contact your local police station to lay a charge. You can also make use of the following resources.

The Department of Social Development has a pilot 24-hour call centre providing support and counselling to victims of gender-based violence. The toll-free number is 0800 428 428 (0800 GBV GBV) to speak to a social worker for assistance and counselling.

Callers can also request a social worker from the Command Centre to contact them by dialling *120*7867# (free) from any cell phone.

Childline South Africa: 0800 055 555

Child Welfare South Africa: 0861 4 CHILD (24453) / 011 452-4110 / e-mail:

What happens next

The police will open a case file and will share the case number with you. An officer must be assigned to the case who can liaise with you.

They will assess the situation and the child may be referred for medical treatment, and in the case of sexual assault, post-exposure prophylaxis. 

If you feel police are not taking the complaint seriously, or have not shared a case number, you can continue to follow up with them and ask to be referred to higher authority.

You can also ask other potential witnesses to accompany you to the police station, such as a pastor, headman, or teacher.

Helping children to heal

Healing from abuse is possible when children are in safe, supportive environments and receive counselling or therapy to help them process the trauma. Younger children may benefit from play therapy rather than traditional counselling.

Depending on the resources available, the police may be able to offer counselling to the child. Public health services usually offer free counselling services, or you could approach a local church for assistance through their counselling programme.

Preventing abuse

We have to talk to children and equip them with the knowledge to protect themselves. Let them know that they have the right to say no to an adult who approaches them and asks them for company, for a favour, or to keep a secret.

Tell them that they can tell you if someone makes them uncomfortable. Let them know that they have the right to refuse to be touched.


Share your stories and questions with us via email at Anonymous contributions are welcome.

Don't miss a story!

For a weekly wrap of our latest parenting news and advice sign up to our free Parent24 newsletter.

Follow us, and chat, on Facebook and Twitter.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.