Myths & realities

Knowledge and understanding about abuse are important tools when it comes to keeping children safe. How much do you know about this critical social issue? See if you can separate the myths from the realities listed below.


Children are more likely to be abused by people they know than by strangers

Reality. Children are more commonly abused by people they know, such as family members, relatives and neighbours. Incidents of physical violence are most likely to happen at home . Violence by strangers is rare. Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by people known to children rather than by strangers. It is not helpful for children to be told that they are in most danger from strangers because they can be left without adequate skills to protect themselves from trusted adults.

The number of children being abused and neglected is increasing

Reality. While comparisons between yearly figures is problematic, researchers and workers in the child protection field agree that while improved awareness is leading to more children being reported in recent years, it remains extremely likely that the real numbers of children being abused is increasing.

In 2012–13, there were 272,980 notifications of abuse and neglect across Australia, which equates to one report of abuse every 2 minutes.

More infants under the age of 12 months were found to have been abused or neglected than children in any other age group.

More children were living away from home for their own protection than ever before. As at 30 June 2013, there were 40,549 children in out-of-home care.

If children don’t witness domestic violence (or violence between adults in the home) they are not affected by it

Myth. Children do not need to see violence between adults in their family to know that it is happening and be affected by it. Children see the aftermath of violence in their home, they see the impact of the violence on the victim of the assaults. Relationships between children and their parents are significantly affected by the violence that occurs between the adults. 

Child abuse can lead to depression, drug abuse and homelessness in later life

Reality. Child abuse is very serious. Many children suffer long-term harm, both physical and emotional, and some children die. The effect on children and young people can vary depending on factors like the type of abuse, the duration and frequency of abuse and the relationship they have with the person who abused them. Research is consistently showing us that the majority of adults who experience problems like depression, drug abuse, unemployment, relationship difficulties, homelessness and crime, have been abused as children.

Boys are rarely victims of sexual abuse

Myth. In approximately one quarter of all child sexual abuse cases reported, the victim is a boy. There is some evidence to suggest that sexual abuse of boys is not reported as readily, so the proportion of sexual abuse happening to boys may be higher.

Disabled children are more likely to become victims of abuse than non-disabled children

Reality. Evidence suggests that disabled children are more likely to be abused than non-disabled children, and that the multiple-disabled are even more at risk. Possible reasons include the difficulty disabled children may have in communicating with others, their intimate personal care sometimes involves a variety of carers, fear of complaining and vulnerability to bullying and intimidation.

Children are sometimes to blame for their abuse

Myth. Children are never to blame for the abuse they suffer from adults. Adults are always responsible for their own behaviour to children. No matter how children behave, an adult never has any right to abuse a child.

The most common form of abuse is emotional abuse

Reality. Nationally, emotional abuse was the most common substantiated form of abuse last year, at 38%. This was followed by neglect (28%), physical abuse (20%) and sexual abuse (13%). Children usually experience more than one type of abuse at the one time.

Children make up stories about their abuse

Myth. Children rarely lie about their abuse. Children’s disclosures of abuse may vary in their content because of their reluctance and fear to tell what has happened.

Children who disclose their abuse and later retract their story were lying about the abuse

Myth. Children who disclose experiences of abuse can become very upset or in conflict with each other, or with the friend or relative the allegation is about. Children may fear that the parent they have disclosed about will be removed from the family, or that they may be removed from the family themselves. Adults may pressure them to retract using threats of more abuse, by frightening them about likely serious consequences, or with more subtle forms of pressure. The shocked and angry reactions of some adults when they hear about abuse can make it very difficult for children to continue to speak out.

Reporting to the state child protection authorities can cause more harm than the abuse itself

Myth. Sometimes people are concerned about children being affected by their efforts to protect and treat them, which may include legal proceedings. However, survivors of abuse say the continued abuse causes more harm than the action taken to stop the abuse.

If a child is reported to the state protection authorities, they will always be taken away from their family

Myth. If a child is assessed as being at risk, removal of the child from home is only used as a last resort. In the majority of cases, child protection authorities work with the family to address issues that are causing the child to be abused or neglected. Often this involves linking the family into family support or counselling services to support the adults to make the necessary changes in their family.

It is not always obvious that a child is being abused

Reality. The effects of child abuse are not always easy to identify, and people who abuse can go to great lengths to conceal it. Many of the common signs and symptoms of abuse can be confused with normal, everyday happenings. Also, children are often forced not to tell by threats, or led to think they will not be believed or will be blamed and punished. Adults need to be aware of the possibility that changes in a child’s behaviour may be caused by child abuse.

If abuse happened once, it is likely to happen again

Reality. Abuse is seldom a one-off incident. It is usually repeated over periods of months and years.The person being abusive may move on to abuse other children.

Child abuse doesn’t happen in well-educated families

Myth. Child abuse happens in every type of family. It is important to remember that adults who abuse and neglect children are responsible for their own behaviour. They may be influenced in their actions by factors such as their own experiences as a child and what they learned about how to treat children. However, this must not be used as an excuse for their behaviour or to deny the experiences of the victim. Sexual abuse, for example, is an abuse of power and not dependent on how well-educated the adult is.

The cost of child abuse

In a joint research project with Access Economics and Monash University, we found that child abuse cost the Australian community up to $30 billion in 2007

64% of the children of the children referred to the Foundation have suffered more than one type of abuse

You can help us stop the cycle of abuse