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Physical Child Abuse – Definition

Physical Child Abuse – Definition

Physical Child Abuse is the deliberate use of force against a child and any injury purposely inflicted upon a child which results or may result in bodily harm, may consist of just one incident or it may happen repeatedly. It is the most visible form of child abuse, and can happen once or many times. Many physically abusive parents and caregivers insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline that are 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. These injuries are often the result of unreasonable, severe corporal punishment of a child. If physical abuse keeps up, the injuries to the child become more severe and it becomes more difficult to eliminate the abusive behaviour. Children often explain injuries by saying they had an accident while playing or they got it while fighting with a sibling. It involves deliberately using force against a child in such a way that the child is either injured or is at risk of being injured.  These injuries may result in permanent disfigurement, disability, or even death. Abusers can use the following tactics to abuse / attack our children:

  • Beating
  • Hitting
  • Shaking
  • Pushing
  • Choking
  • Biting
  • Burning
  • Poisoning
  • Kicking
  • Assaulting a child with a weapon
  • Holding a child under water
  • Any other dangerous or harmful use of force or restraint.

Physical indicators and warning signs of physical abuse – Children depend on adults and their parents for protection, however in times of abuse;if you see these signs, call 911. The child needs help immediately.

  • Baby is born with drugs in his/her system
  • Baby or child suffers physical symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome
  • Child wears torn, stained or bloody clothing
  •       Facial injuries (black eyes, broken jaw, bloody or broken nose, bloody or swollen lips), with implausible, inconsistent or nonexistent explanations)
  •       Frequent injuries and have unexplained or poorly explained bruises
  • Bruises on the back, stomach, back of the thighs (not typically present in normal child play)
  • Bruises, welts, human bite marks, burns (water, cigarettes or with specific marking, such as with an iron or heater)
  • Immersion burns that are sock-shaped or glove-shaped
  • Electric iron or stove burner shaped burnsHave bruises in various colours in the shape of an object (hand, cord, rope, belt, buckle, clothes hanger)
  • Suspicious patterns of bruises (parallel or circular bruises, in shape of human fingers, or several bruises in different stages of healing)
  • Visible handprint or finger prints
  • Have unexplained cuts or welts
  • Have any injury in a spot on their body that it is not likely to have occurred by accident (e.g. a bruised earlobe, cut behind the knee)
  • Have consumed a poisonous, corrosive or non-medical mind altering substance
  • Have unexplained burns
  •       cigarette burns
  •       immersion burns that are sock-shaped or glove-shaped Upper arms
  •       electric iron or stove burner shaped burns
  • Have a number of scars in a regular pattern
  • Have unexplained or poorly explained fractures, sprains, dislocations or head injuries
  • Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
  • Subdural hematomas, fractures or lacerations, perhaps in various stages of healing
  • Have unexplained or poorly explained cuts and scrapes
  • Swelling, pain during movement, or unusually restricted movement
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days
  • Accidental injuries look different and are usually in different places from non-accidental injuries. This is especially true in infants because they do not move around much on their own. Injuries such as broken ribs and femurs, spiral fractures, facial bruising, acceleration /de-acceleration brain injuries (shaken baby syndrome), failure to thrive (dehydration and malnutrition) are taken very seriously.

Any person who has been reared in an environment of violence may be more likely to inflict violence on others. People who recognize their tendencies to get angry, out of control, or violent should seek help. They can learn anger management and child rearing techniques, and try to suppress their violent tendencies through conscious and diligent effort at all times. Seeing others inflict physical abuse on children should prompt immediate action by the observer. People who are physically violent generally demonstrate violence again, at escalating levels. Early intervention is the best strategy to avoid lifelong consequences.

Physical child abuse effects vary from child to child, depending on six factors


1.            Severity of the physical abuse

2.            Frequency of the physical abuse

3.            Age of the child when physical abuse began

4.            Child’s relationship to the abuser

5.            Availability of support persons

6.            Child’s ability to cope

Severity of the physical abuse: How hard a child is struck is only one aspect of severity. The implement the child is struck with is also a factor. This does not mean that using an open hand or fist will result in fewer or lesser effects; the harm done to the child is measured both by physical injury and emotional injury.

Frequency of the physical abuse: A single incident of physical abuse can result in severe trauma, but generally, the more often the physical abuse occurs the greater the impact on the child.

Age of the child when physical abuse began: The younger the child was at the onset of physical abuse, the greater the imprint, and thus, the greater the impact. This is particularly evident when the abuse continues throughout the child’s life.

Child’s relationship to the abuser: When a child has a very close relationship with his/her abuser, the feelings of betrayal are that much greater; the very person who is supposed to protect is instead hurting that child.

Availability of support persons: When a child has no one to turn to, increased feelings of abandonment occur, which in turn adds to the physical child abuse effects.

Child’s ability to cope: A child will find a way to cope with the abuse. The methods a child uses can add to the effects. Coping skills can be:

Physical, such as raging or becoming the “comedian” or “class clown”. While being “funny” is generally considered an attribute, there are children who use humour to cover up the fact that they are suffering.

Emotional, such as the child refusing to try anything new for fear of failure, and therefore avoids receiving even more negative messages about themselves.

Inward, where the child turns against him/herself, either physically (such as in self-harming in the form of cutting or burning) or emotionally (such as in self-blame).

Outward, such as when the child acts out against someone else.

Children and youth suffer physical pain, trauma, and emotional scars when they are victims of child abuse. The physical child abuse effects also vary depending on the age of the child.


  • Afraid when other children cry
  • Aggressiveness or withdrawn
  • Difficulties in school
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Does not trust
  • Exaggerated politeness
  • Fearful of physical contact
  • Low self-worth
  • Lying
  • Profound sadness
  • Psychosomatic illnesses
  • Startles easily, cowers, cringes
  • Stealing


  • Attempted suicide
  • Criminal behaviours
  • Does not trust
  • Developmental lags
  • Extreme aggression or extreme passivity
  • Failing in school, truancy
  • Inability to control emotions; physically lashes out
  • Manipulative
  • Never cries or always cries
  • Rage
  • Runaway
  • Self-harm and/or harms others
  • Sets up negative reactions from others
  • Short attention span
  • Substance abuse
  • Thrill-seeking behaviours


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