physical abuse signs in a child

A child experiencing physical abuse

When a child has an adverse experience, it can lead to greater issues down the line. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) correlate with negative health impacts. Those who have six or more ACEs lose 20 years to their average life expectancy compared to those who do not have any ACEs. Those with 4 or more ACEs are more likely to have a chronic health condition and engage in unhealthy behaviors.

Unfortunately, for some children, one ACE they will experience is physical abuse. In Idaho, a reported 19.2% of adults have experienced physical abuse as a child, and in 2017 there were 402 confirmed cases  of physical abuse reported in the state. 

What is Physical Abuse?

The legal definitions of physical abuse are different for each state. Generally, physical abuse happens when a parent or caretaker does something that results in a physical injury to a child. Physical abuse is usually intentional and repetitive—a pattern that may be difficult to predict. Physical injuries resulting from abuse can include red marks, cuts, welts, bruises, muscle strains, broken bones, etc.  

Corporal punishment is a form of harmful behavior toward a child that is a topic of debate as it relates to whether or not it is considered abuse. Child development and health experts have stressed that any use of violence should be avoided as these types of behaviors, including spanking, can emotionally damage a child. Behaviors toward children and adolescents that cause pain, physical injury, or emotional trauma, even when done to discipline, could be considered child abuse. 

Punishment does not have to become physical in order for it to have a harmful impact on a child. Several studies have shown that children who are exposed to physical threats and violence by their caregivers can develop post-traumatic stress responses and other psychological issues down the line including aggressive behaviors, depression, and anxiety.

Some examples of physical abuse include:

  • Hitting or beating
  • Hitting with an object (belt, paddle, stick, etc.)
  • Kicking
  • Burning (with hot water, cigarette, iron, etc.)
  • Holding a child under water
  • Tying the child up or locking up the child
  • Shaking a baby severely
  • Clawing, scratching, biting, pulling hair
  • Tearing clothes, breaking eyeglasses, etc.
  • Cutting with a sharp object

How to Detect Physical Abuse

The symptoms of abuse present differently in each child. They will vary in terms of the age the child was abused, the severity of it, how long it continues, and the level of resiliency of the child. Some children internalize the abuse and it presents as depression or anxiety while others will externalize the abuse and act out in physically aggressive ways toward others.

There are some warning signs to look out for that can help determine if a child is being physically abused such as:

  • Struggling to develop and maintain relationships, friendships, etc.
  • Distrust of authority 
  • Negative self-view and sees self as unworthy
  • Numb, withdrawn behavior
  • Anxious, fearful behavior
  • Withdrawal from friends and normal activities
  • Behavioral changes, anger, aggression, hostility, etc.
  • Depression, anxiety, sudden loss of self-confidence, irrational or unusual fears
  • Hyperactivity
  • Sudden changes in school performance
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Reluctance to leave school or social activities out of fear of going home
  • Apparent lack of supervision
  • Attempting to run away from home
  • Rebellious or defiant behavior
  • Self-harm, suicidal attempts, or ideation
  • Unexplained injuries, bruises, fractures, burns, etc. 
  • Injuries that do not match the given circumstance
  • Torn clothing, unkempt hygiene, unmet medical needs
  • Substance use or abuse

Signs of Physical Abuse in Parents and Caregivers 

If you suspect a parent or caregiver might be abusing a child in their care, some signs might include:

  • Showing little concern for the child
  • Consistently belittling or berating the child in public, describing the child in negative terms, humiliating the child publicly
  • Using harsh physical discipline on the child, punishment that doesn’t match the crime 
  • Giving conflicting or unaccounted explanations of injuries
  • Limiting the child from contact with others
  • Demanding unrealistic expectations of the child
  • Expecting a child to provide for his/her needs and acting jealous of the child’s attention toward others
  • Using or abusing drugs/alcohol

Long-Term Effects of Physical Child Abuse

The effects of physical abuse are both physical and psychological. Some children are able to overcome the impacts of physical abuse easier than others. Those with the greatest chance of thriving after abuse are those with a strong support system and high levels of resilience or resiliency skills. For many children and adolescents, unfortunately, there are physical, behavioral, emotional, and mental health effects experienced for years to come if they are not nurtured and supported after the abuse in a healing way.

Physical Effects

  • Physical disabilities
  • Premature death
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Learning disabilities
  • Health issues such as heart disease, immune disorders, lung disease, and cancer

Behavioral Effects

  • Social withdrawal
  • Delinquent or violent behavior
  • Abusing others (repeating the cycle of violence)
  • Suicide attempts, or self-harm
  • Problems with employment (getting and keeping a job)
  • High-risk sexual behavior, teen pregnancy

Emotional Effects

  • Low self-esteem
  • Trust and intimacy issues
  • A negative or unhealthy idea of parenthood
  • Difficulty coping with stress and frustrations in healthy ways
  • The belief that violence is a normal part of loving relationships
  • Difficulty establishing and sustaining relationships 

Mental Health Effects

  • Personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • PTSD
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Attachment disorders
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating disorders

Risk Factors Indicating a Person May Become Abusive

Some risk factors that could increase the likelihood of becoming abusive include:

  • A history of abuse or neglect
  • A child in the family who is developmentally or physically disabled
  • A physical or mental illness
  • Family crisis
  • Stress
  • Financial struggles
  • Marital discord
  • Social or extended family exile or separation
  • Domestic violence
  • Lack of education surrounding child development and parenting skills
  • Alcohol, drug, or another substance abuse

Of course, the presence of these factors don't automatically mean someone will be abusive.

Protecting Your Child from Abuse

To help protect your child from becoming a victim of abuse or being impacted negatively by known or potential abuse, it’s important to offer love and attention to your child. Let your child know they are supported and loved unconditionally. It’s also important not to respond in anger, as this could be triggering and cause fear. Be mindful of the supervision your child is exposed to when outside of your care, both ensuring your child is supervised and that you are familiar with those who are supervising. You may want to volunteer for afterschool events in an effort to become acquainted with those your child is exposed to daily. It’s also important to teach your child when and how to say “no,” how to stay safe online, and how to ask for help when they need to disclose a concern. 

If you know of any form of abuse that is happening in the state of Idaho, legally you are mandated to report it. Call 2-1-1 and state your intent to report child abuse or neglect. You can also call 1-855-552-KIDS or your local authorities. 

If you are not located in Idaho, it’s still important to report suspected abuse, and may be required by your state's law. Call 1-800-4-A-CHILD for the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline or Prevent Child Abuse America at 1-800-CHILDREN.

If you are concerned that you or someone in your home may hurt your child, it is important to seek help immediately. Child abuse is preventable, and oftentimes a symptom of something deeper going on that may be treatable. If you feel like you have an out-of-control teenager or find yourself thinking my teenager is depressed or are curious about anxiety in teens, we would love to help you get your family back on track. 

List of parenting resources in the Treasure Valley: 

The skilled team of professionals at Idaho Youth Ranch is available to help you get back on track and thrive whether you’re seeking parenting support or child counseling. We work with children, teens, and their families in an effort to help them overcome the long-term effects of abuse.