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Physical Abuse

Physical Abuse of Children


Defined as non-accidental trauma or physical injury caused by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning or otherwise harming a child, physical abuse is the most visible form of child maltreatment.


Physical abuse may be the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child, but not always.  It can also result from severe discipline, such as using a belt on a child, or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age or physical condition.


Shaking or hitting babies can cause non-accidental head injuries. Sometimes parents or carers will make up or cause the symptoms of illness in their child, perhaps giving them medicine they don’t need and making the child unwell – this is known as fabricated or induced illness.


There’s no excuse for physically abusing a child. It causes serious, and often long-lasting, harm – and in severe cases, death.


Many physically abusive parents and caregivers insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline—ways to make children learn to behave.  But there is a big difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse.


The point of disciplining children is to teach them right from wrong, not to make them live in fear


Physical abuse vs. Discipline

In physical abuse, unlike physical forms of discipline, the following elements are present:

  • Unpredictability. The child never knows what is going to set the parent off. There are no clear boundaries or rules. The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.

  • Lashing out in anger. Physically abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse.

  • Using fear to control behavior. Parents who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.” However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.

Bumps and bruises don’t necessarily mean a child is being physically abused – all children have accidents, trips and falls.


There’s isn’t one sign or symptom to look out for that will say a child is definitely being physically abused. But if a child often has injuries, there seems to be a pattern, or the explanation doesn’t match the injury then this should be investigated.

Warning Signs of Physical Abuse in Children


  • Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.

  • Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen.

  • Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.

  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.

  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days


Signs a baby or infant may have a head injury


There may be visible signs of an impact such as swelling, bruising or fractures.


Signs of head injuries include:

  • being comatose

  • respiratory problems

  • seizures

  • vomiting

  • unusual responses – irritable, poor feeding, lethargic, unresponsive.


Not all head injuries are caused by abuse. Sometimes there are other reasons a child may have these symptoms.


Physical abuse has long-lasting effects 


Children who have been physically abused may still feel the effects long after their injuries have healed.


Being shaken, hit or physically abused in any way as a child can lead to poor physical or mental health later in life, including depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, childhood behavioural or conduct disorders, drug use, suicide attempts, obesity, sexually transmitted infections and risky sexual behaviour (Norman, R.E. et al, 2012).


Other long-term effects include:


  • not doing as well at school or education

  • criminal risk taking behaviour

  • drug and alcohol problems.

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