Tag Archives: Physical Abuse

Physical Abuse

physical abuss

Physical abuse of children can be defined as an action which physically hurts or injures them. Usually, this is not a one-off incident, but is a pattern of behaviour 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 involve 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


– 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’ behaviours, 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 behaviours

– eating disorders

substance misuse

On top of the above, those who have suffered physical abuse as children are much more likely to commit crime 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.


David Hosier BSc Homs; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

What Types Of Parents Are More Likely To Physically Abuse Their Children?

why do parents physically abuse their children?

Stith’s (2009) Meta-Analysis :

A study carried out by Stith et al. (2009) reviewed 155 other studies (this is called a meta-analysis) that had already been carried out in order to identify factors that put the child at risk of physical abuse by his/her parents.

In order to identify these factors, one part of Stith’s study examined which particular characteristics of the parent put that person at increased risk of physically abusing his/her child. I list these characteristics below :

Characteristics Of Parents That Increase The Probability That They Will Be Physically Abusive Towards Their Child/Children (according to Stith’s, 2009 meta-analysis of 155 previously published studies) :

  • alcohol abuse by parent
  • the parent is single
  • the parent is unemployed
  • the parent abuses drugs
  • the parent approves of corporal punishment as a means of instilling discipline in / control over the child
  • parent has poor coping skills
  • parent has health problems
  • parent has poor problem solving skills
  • parent lacks social support
  • parent is involved in criminal behavior
  • parent is under significant stress
  • parent suffers from significant anxiety
  • parents suffers from mental illness
  • parent suffers from depression
  • parent suffers from low self-esteem
  • parent has problems controlling own anger
  • parent had dysfunctional relationship with own parent/s
  • parent suffers from hyper-reactivity / has poor control of emotions

Which Of The Above Are The Biggest Risk Factors?

According to Stith’s (2009) research, of the 18 risk factors listed above, those which put the parent at highest risk of physically abusing his/her child were as follows :

  • parental hyper-reactivity
  • parental problems controlling own anger

Other Considerations : Family Factors :

Stith also found that, in addition to the above factors, certain factors relating to the family could also increase the risk of a parent physically abusing his/her child. These were as follows :

  • poor level of family cohesion
  • significant conflict within the family
  • low level of marital satisfaction
  • violence between the spouses
  • low socioeconomic status
  • the family includes a non-biological parent
  • size of family
Which Of These Family Factors Put The Child Most At Risk Of Being Physically Abused Within The Home?

According to Stith’s (2009) research, of the seven risk factors listed above, those which put the parent at highest risk of physically abusing his/her child were as follows :

  • significant family conflict
  • poor level of family cohesion

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)