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.
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.
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.
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.