Physical abuse is any way of causing deliberate physical harm to a child, including hitting, slapping, punching, shaking, throwing, kicking, poisoning, burning or scalding, biting, scratching, breaking bones, drowning, or suffocating.
Physical abuse also includes making up the symptoms of an illness or deliberately causing a child to become unwell, which can happen by giving the child unnecessary medication. This is known as fabricated or induced illness (FII)
Shaking or hitting babies is a form of physical abuse which can cause abusive head trauma (AHT) and non-accidental head injuries (NAHI).
Signs of Physical Abuse
Knowing the signs of physical abuse can help give a voice to a child. Any child can experience physical abuse, but some parents and carers might find it difficult to provide a safe and loving home if they are experiencing financial hardship and poverty, isolation, issues with drugs and alcohol, inadequate housing, mental health issues, relationship issues, domestic abuse, or a lack of support.
All children have bumps, trips, and falls, and not all cuts and bruises mean that a child is being physically abused. If a child has repeated or patterned injuries, this needs to be reported. Other signs of physical abuse include:
- Bruises (particularly indicative of abuse if observed in infants and immobile children)
- Broken or fractured bones, or evidence of old fractures
- Burns or scalds, particularly to the feet or the bottom
- Lacerations to the body or mouth
- Bite marks
- The effects of poisoning (e.g. vomiting, drowsiness, seizures)
- Breathing problems from drowning, suffocation, or poisoning
- Head injuries in babies and toddlers may be signalled by the following symptoms: swelling, bruising, fractures, being extremely sleepy, breathing problems, vomiting seizures, being irritable or not feeding properly
- Seeming frightened of parents, reluctant to return home after school
- Displays frozen watchfulness
- Constantly asking in words/actions what will happen next
- Shrinks away at the approach of adults
Effects of Physical Abuse
Physical abuse can have long-lasting effects on a child.
Many parents shake their baby as an impulsive reaction to crying, and many don’t understand the consequences of head shaking. If a baby or infant is shaken or thrown they may suffer abusive head trauma (AHT), also known as shaken baby syndrome, resulting in injuries to the head or brain, eyes, and some other areas, which can lead to long-term disabilities, learning problems, seizures, sight issues or blindness, speech problems, behavioural issues, brain damage or death.
Other consequences of physical abuse on children of all ages include:
- Poor mental health, including anxiety and depression
- Poor self-esteem
- Eating disorders
- Self-harm and attempts at suicide
- Behaviour issues
- Criminal behaviour
- Drug and alcohol problems
- Issues at school
- Trouble eating and/or sleeping properly
- Ricky sexual behaviour
- Difficulties forming relationship in the long term