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Physical abuse is a direct act of maliciousness towards a child. It may be brief, and the perpetrator may feel very bad about it afterwards, but when it occurs, it is an action directly intended to cause injury to a child. For this reason, physical abuse is accompanied by a whole host of problems.

Physical abuse is probably the most straight forward type of child abuse. It’s not hard to understand why beating a child or otherwise injuring them might be problematic. Yet few people understand that physical abuse is also among the most psychologically harmful forms of maltreatment. In addition, physical and psychological maltreatment usually coexist, meaning that where physical abuse takes place, emotional abuse usually precedes it. (Claussen & Crittenden, 1991: The severity of physical injury is not related to The severity Of other Types Of Maltreatment, meaning the physical abuse could be minor & emotional abuse severe, or visa versa.) We’ll discuss the emotional impacts in a minute. First let’s take a look at some of the elements that matter:

Important Factors In Physical Abuse:

1. Closeness of the person:

The closer the person, the more contact with the child they’ll have, and the more abuse generally occurs. This increases not only the amount of abuse but the child’s heightened state of stress. The type of relationship also plays a role. A child who is struck by a parent who has an otherwise decent relationship with the child and who isn’t consistently abusive will suffer a more profound social injury than a child who endures the same thing from a marginal and regularly abusive parent. On the other end, such a parent is also more likely to take steps to repair and reconcile the situation, and will also be less abusive overall. So the closeness of the person dictates what you’re dealing with: physical abuse from a beloved parent induces a more profound social pain, while physical abuse from a generally bad parent causes more problems in the realm of safety issues, hypersensitivity and stress. Two different types of wounds occur from two different types of parents.

2. What brought about the abuse:

Did it occur out of the blue or was it the result of an escalated parent-child dispute? Was a child beaten for making a mess in the house, or beaten because mother had a fight with her boyfriend and needed someone to take her frustrations out on? These different situations will bring about quite different wounds. A child whose abuse arises from their behavior is likely to blame themselves, causing self esteem issues. A child who suffers abuse because mom had a fight with her boyfriend (or at the hands of her boyfriend and mom didn’t intervene or won’t do anything about it) will suffer rejection and endure profound attachment wounds. Remember, it’s the elements, not the acts that matter more. These little wrinkles surrounding the incident may hold more keys to a child’s injury than the actual act of abuse.

3. Frequency:

The more it happens, the more harm will be done. That’s a basic principle of any type of legitimate abuse. In such cases a child’s daily life becomes a living torture chamber. They don’t want to go home. Hypersensitivity, along with any other symptom typically associated with child abuse, starts to set in. However, there is also somewhat of a bell curve in all of this. A child’s initial experiences will hold more value-per-incident than subsequent episodes of abuse; unless, of course, they escalate in nature.

4. Predictability:

Children, like the rest of us, strive for control over our environment. Therefore, physical abuse can cause far more stress and psychological trauma when it’s erratic and unpredictable. A child who suffers abuse at the hands of a bi-polar parent whose moods swing day to day without warning may end up worse off than one who suffers regular abuse from a constantly angry parent, for no other reason than that the unpredictability increases stress even further.

5. Level of pain/injury:

Obviously, being slapped is different from being punched, and being punched is different from being beaten or being picked up and thrown into a wall. The worse the injury is, the worse the after-effects are. Of course, the more severe the injury gets, the more concerned we should be about the child’s physical safety when it comes to the potential for recurrence. Unfortunately, few people truly understand just how easy it is to kill a child in a moment of anger. One blow that is given with just a little too much force, one push or toss across the room that lands the child in a precarious position, and it’s over.

The Serious nature of physical abuse

Most physical abuse has a tendency to escalate in nature over time. What starts out as shoving or slapping often progresses to things much worse. When it escalates to the point that a caregiver is using fists, objects, or enough force to leave bruises or break bones, they’re using enough force to cause brain swelling or internal bleeding, both of which could be deadly at any moment. All it takes is for the child to catch the wrong blow in the wrong spot. For this reason, physical abuse deserves special scrutiny. Your average physical abuser poses a much more severe threat to a child than your average sexual abuser by a factor of hundreds, just to put it in comparison.

This doesn’t necessarily mean children should be removed in all cases of physical abuse; as such actions are horrendously damaging as well and tend to be no safer, at least according to statistics. (See our later chapter on social service intervention) Especially when the child doesn’t want to leave home, we shouldn’t rush to take them. We support means other than child removal to interrupt the pattern of abuse whenever possible. But it is to say that physical abuse requires hypervigilance on our part to ensure it isn’t recurring, because the next time could be the last time. More than any other type of abuse, physical abuse puts a child’s life in immediate danger.

When it comes to young children, physical abuse doesn’t have to be extreme in order to be extremely damaging. Shaken baby syndrome is one example of this. It can have devastating, lifelong effects with only a few seconds of lost control. (Newman, 7/22/2008) When you’re talking about physical abuse, it needs to be taken seriously, because it only takes a moment or rage to kill a child.


Most physical abuse is a direct result of parental stress or poor parenting skills. This can be either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, it means that lowering parental stressors and improving their discipline skills or general family situation can prevent abuse. On the flip side, it means a variety of stressors can cause abuse, and society is doing little or nothing to prevent these stressors.

Physical abuse is often classified according to the level of injury it causes, and we obviously need to pay especially close attention to the life-death risks it poses. Yet even mild forms of physical abuse model aggressive behavior that breeds violence in children, and physical abuse, being a direct act of violence against the child also causes the most pronounced psychological harm. It needs to take special priority in the fight for child welfare.

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