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How Does Physical Abuse Affect The Child’s Behavior?


Physical abuse of children can be defined as an action that physically hurts or injures them. Usually, this is not a one-off incident but is a pattern of behavior towards the child from the parent/s or someone else who is supposed to be caring for him/her. Very frequently, too, the child who is physically abused will also be emotionally abused.

It is estimated that approximately 1 in 6 reports of child abuse involves physical abuse. However, as has been pointed out in other articles on this site, child abuse is notoriously under-reported (not least due to the perpetrators’ desire to cover it up) so it is very likely that it is far more prevalent than suggested by official statistics.


As well as the physical harm done to the child, s/he will inevitably suffer associated adverse psychological consequences. These can include :

– anxiety and fear

– depression

– traumatic stress

– a tendency to become aggressive

– difficulties with interpersonal relationships

– fear and distrust of those in authority

– low self-esteem

– self-blame

– a sense of shame (due to the fact it is common for the child to erroneously believe s/he deserved the harsh treatment)

– it is also thought that the trauma of being physically abused, over time, can negatively impinge upon the development of the brain


It is common, too, for the child who has suffered physical abuse to frequently ‘act out’ his/her feelings. Essentially, this involves ‘problem’ behaviors, such as going into rages, as an expression (usually unconsciously) of his/her inner emotional turmoil and distress. ‘Acting out’ takes place because the child does not have the verbal skills or understanding to effectively verbally express his/her deepest feelings and inner pain.

Sometimes, however, in stark contrast to this, the child, in response to the physical abuse, will become emotionally ‘numb’, apathetic, and resigned; s/he may become emotionally ‘flat’ and stop expressing his/her feelings.


The more unpredictable the physical abuse is (it is especially likely to be unpredictable if the parent/’carer’ is unstable) the deeper will be the sense of fear the child finds him/herself having to live with.


If the child is often threatened with physical abuse (ie it is always ‘just’ a threat, and never actually materializes), the effects can be just as serious. Indeed, the psychologists Knutson et al., (2005) found that living with such threats often led to depression, anxiety and aggression in the child.


A research study carried out by Silverman et al. found that 80% of young people who had experienced significant physical abuse in childhood, had at least one psychiatric disorder by the age of 21 years. These included :

– depression

– anxiety

– suicidal behaviors

– eating disorders

– substance misuse

On top of the above, those who have suffered physical abuse as children are much more likely to commit crimes in later life. They are also more likely to become violent themselves, having learned, as children, that violence was an ‘acceptable’ form of expression and control.


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