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Indicators of Physical Abuse

Indicators of Physical Abuse


Physical abuse of children is defined as excessive intentional physical injury to a child or excessive corporal punishment of a child. Torture, beatings, and assault of children are obvious forms of physical abuse.

Corporal punishment by parents is subject to evaluation and interpretation. In general, spanking with a hand and other forms of mild physical punishment that do not leave any marks are considered within the realm of parental discretion.

Punishment that leads to marks that last for more than a few minutes can be interpreted as abuse, regardless of intention. The use of any objects to strike a child (other than with your open hand) is wrong. That includes belts, paddles, sticks, or any other object. A family tradition of beatings or the fact that the parent was subjected to physical abuse is not an acceptable excuse for severe injury to a child.

Excessive physical discipline is harmful and dangerous to children. Small children can be killed by relatively minor acts of physical violence (for example, shaking, dropping, or throwing the child against hard surfaces). Any severe beating with an object, forceful shaking, submersion in hot water, intentional burning, and other forms of intentional infliction of pain are inappropriate and criminal behaviours.

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:
  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury
  • Describes the child as “evil,” or in some other very negative way
  • Uses harsh physical discipline with the child
  • Has a history of abuse as a child
  • Behavioural signs

The child may:

  • be defensive about injuries
  • have low self esteem
  • be frightened by disapproval
  • be wary of physical contact with adults
  • show fear of parents or other adults
  • be nervous when other children cry
  • wear clothing that covers their body even when the weather is warm
  • not be able to tolerate physical contact or touch
  • has behavioural extremes, such as aggression or withdrawal
  • run away
  • not be able to make friends
  • be reluctant to undress around others
  • not show any reaction to physical pain
  • report injury by their parent

Possible Indicators of Physical Abuse


Physical abuse is the intentional use of force against a child resulting in injury or causing bodily harm. By themselves, these signs do not prove abuse or neglect but they do tell us we need to know more about the child’s or youth’s circumstances. They can be the result of phenomena such as divorce, separation, death of a significant person or the arrival of a new sibling. That’s why indicators must be assessed by professionals. The important thing to know is what the signs are, and how to report them if a child or youth may need protection.

Physical indicators

  • injuries (bruises, welts, cuts, burns, bite marks, fractures, etc.) that are not consistent with the explanation offered (e.g. extensive bruising to one area)
  • presence of several injuries (3+) that are in various stages of healing, numerous injuries in varying stages of recovery or healing
  • repeated injuries over a period of time, presence of injuries over an extended period of time
  • injuries that form a shape or pattern that may look like the object used to make the injury (e.g. buckle, hand, iron, teeth, cigarette burns)
  • facial injuries in infants and preschool children (e.g. cuts, bruises, sores, etc.)
  • injuries not consistent with the child’s age and developmental phase
  • bald patches on child’s head where hair may have been torn out
  • repeated poisonings and/or accidents

Behavioural indicators

  • runaway attempts, fear of going home, afraid to go home
  • stilted conversation, vacant stares or frozen watchfulness, no attempt to seek comfort when hurt
  • describes self as bad and feels deserving to be punished
  • cannot recall how injuries occurred, or offers an inconsistent explanation, inconsistent explanation for injuries or cannot remember
  • frightened of parents, wary of adults or reluctant to go home
  • often absent from school/child care
  • may flinch if touched unexpectedly
  • extremely aggressive or extremely withdrawn
  • displays indiscriminate affection-seeking behaviour
  • abusive behaviour and language in play
  • overly compliant and/or eager to please
  • poor sleeping patterns, fear of the dark, frequent nightmares
  • sad, cries frequently
  • apprehensive when others cry
  • drug/alcohol misuse
  • depression
  • poor memory and concentration
  • suicide attempts


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