What is Physical Abuse?

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What is child physical abuse?

Physical abuse is the second most common form of child maltreatment. Legal definitions vary from state to state, but, broadly, child physical abuse is any physical act by a caregiver that results in a child being hurt or injured.

The precise definition of child physical abuse varies among states, the District of Columbia, and the US territories. All these entities agree that physical abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver commits an act that results in physical injury to a child or adolescent, such as red marks, cuts, welts, bruises, muscle sprains, or broken bones, even if the injury was unintentional. Physical abuse can occur when physical punishment goes too far or a parent lashes out in anger.

Even forms of physical punishment that do not result in physical injury are considered physical abuse and are outlawed in some states. For example, in Arkansas, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia, hitting a child with a closed fist is considered physical abuse. In Arkansas, hitting a child on the face or head is also called physical abuse. For more information on state laws, go to Child Welfare.

Children who are physically abused can develop child traumatic stress. They are also at risk for depression and anxiety. Child abuse has been linked to poor physical, emotional, and mental development.

Who is physically abused?

Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk for physical abuse. Physical abuse affects both boys and girls across neighborhoods, communities, and countries around the world. Children ages 4-7 and 12-15 are at the greatest risk of being physically abused. Very young children are most susceptible to receiving serious injuries.

How can you tell if a child has been, or is being physically abused?

It can be difficult to determine from a child’s behavior or emotional state whether abuse has occurred. The best way to know if a child has been abused is if the child tells you.

There may also be physical signs, such as welts and bruises in various stages of healing, fingernail marks, human bite marks, burns, lacerations, abrasions in the pattern of an instrument, and missing, loose, or broken teeth.

It is very possible for a child to be physically abused without anyone noticing if the child’s injuries are hidden by clothing. There are several indicators that strongly suggest a child is being abused:

  • Frequent physical injuries that are attributed to the child’s being clumsy or accident-prone

  • Injuries that do not seem to fit the explanation given by the parents or child

  • Conflicting explanations provided by child and/or caregivers, explanations that do not fit the injuries, or injuries attributed to accidents that could not have occurred given the child’s age (for example, an immersion burn on a child too young to walk or crawl)

  • Habitual absence from or lateness to school without a credible reason. Parents may keep a child at home until physical evidence of abuse has healed. One should also be suspicious if a child comes to school wearing long-sleeved or high-collared clothing on hot days, since this may be an attempt to hide injuries

  • Awkward movements or difficulty walking; this may suggest that the child is in pain or suffers from the aftereffects of repeated injuries

What should you do if you suspect a child has been, or is being physically abused?

If you are a counselor, parent, teacher, or anyone else concerned about a child whom you suspect is being abused, the best way to begin is by talking to the child.

Start with open-ended questions. Don’t assume that the child is being abused. There may be many explanations for why a child is behaving in a particular way or for how a child was injured. Some children have conditions, such as osteogenesis imperfecta or blood clotting disorders that make them more vulnerable to bruising and/or broken bones.

If the child has a visible injury, ask how the child was injured. Ask open-ended follow-up questions to look for inconsistencies if the explanation for the injury seems implausible or doesn’t match the injuries.

What should you do if a child tells you he or she has been, or is being physically abused?

Whether or not you are mandated to report child abuse to the child protection agency varies from state to state. In New Jersey, for example, every citizen who comes into contact with a child and observes behavior or conditions that might indicate abuse or neglect is required by law to report their suspicions. Even if you are not mandated to report abuse, there is no law against making an abuse report if you have a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused. The identity of the person making the child abuse report is not shared with anyone other than child protection services workers. Some states also allow anonymous reporting. Utah is one of these states.

Why don’t children “tell” when they’re being physically abused?

There are many reasons why children don’t tell about physical abuse, including:

  • Fear that their parents will be mad at them or will hurt them worse for telling

  • Desire not to get their parents into trouble

  • Fear of being removed from their homes

  • A belief that it’s okay for their parents to hurt them

  • Fear of not being believed

  • Shame or guilt

  • Belief that they deserve the abuse for their “bad” behavior

What are the consequences of physical abuse for families?

Children

Experts in the field of child behavior believe that physical abuse teaches children to be submissive, fearful, and/or aggressive. It also teaches them that hitting is a way to control other people or solve problems. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that grow out of physical abuse can cause a child to have problems at school, at home, and with friends. Sometimes children who have been hit don’t do well at making and keeping friends. They may not trust people in authority. Children may also become fearful of their parents. It can be confusing for children when a parent, the person they depend on and love the most, hurts them in some way.

Being hit may make children feel angry, helpless, powerless, hostile, guilty, or ashamed. It may result in their becoming chronically anxious or depressed. All these negative feelings about themselves increase children’s stress levels and only make it harder for them to behave well. With therapy and support, children can overcome the effects of child physical abuse and go on to lead productive lives.

Parents

When children’s behaviors get worse in response to being hit, parents may feel even more stress. When physical punishment does not create the results a parent seeks, the parent may escalate the punishment, and the child and parent may get locked in a vicious cycle of greater violence on the part of parents, and greater acting out on the part of the children. Many parents feel upset after hitting their children. They may also feel bad about themselves and their abilities to parent. Once the state’s child protection services agency becomes involved, parents may be arrested, may have to go to court, and may have their children removed from their care. There are alternatives to physical punishment. Don’t hesitate to contact a therapist in your area to assist you.

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