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It isn’t always easy to discern the signs and symptoms of physical abuse, and adults need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions. After all, childhood can be a contact sport at times. Kids fall, they run into things (and each other), they get bumps and bruises throughout their body.

There are also a number of “serious medical conditions that can mimic child abuse” (Turner v. Lowen, 823 Fed Appx 311), producing the type of injuries we might expect to see as a result of physical abuse. For example, “metabolic bone disease” in children can result in fractures from normal handling. Certain blood and clotting disorders can cause children to bruise from the slightest touch.

So I reiterate once again the need to be cautious and not jump to conclusions. There are many normal (and abnormal) injuries that can look like physical abuse when they’re really not. Here are some guidelines that will help you better discern the signs and symptoms of physical abuse:

Normal childhood injuries

The following injuries are common to childhood, and are usually NOT signs of physical abuse:

  • Scattered bruises
  • Occasional bumps and swelling on the forehead or cranium
  • Scrapes & abrasions, especially on the hands, knees, and less occasionally, the face.

Signs & symptoms of physical child abuse

The following injuries are more suspicious and could potentially be signs of physical abuse:

  • Bruises in the shape of a palm-print or fingerprints
  • Abrasions, swelling or bruises around the wrists (from being grabbed, twisted & yanked)
  • Black eyes or bruising on the cheeks (though there can sometimes be normal explanations for such injuries)
  • Suspicious burn marks around the body, particularly ifthey are clearly defined, as ifkids were burned by an object
  • Scars or welts on the back (injuries on the back in general are less common from accidents, but are routinely seen from physical abuse)
  • Retinal hemorrhages or bloodshot eyes (which occur from head trauma or shaking)
  • Trouble walking, moving, or sitting normally
  • An unusual number of broken bones

Behavioral signs of physical child abuse

Physically abused children may also exhibit a few behavioral symptoms:

  • A child flinches when you approach them or move suddenly, as ifthey expect to be hit
  • Running or hiding when they think they might be in trouble
  • Profusely apologizing for accidents or misdeeds in a way that’s unusual for kids their age.


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