4.2 Physical Abuse

An angry young boy getting ready to punch
Photo by Jen Ezung, Pexels License

Physical abuse is any harm to a child caused by an action or omission of action by the child’s caregiver, which could result in a non-accidental injury and may include (but is not limited to) hitting, grabbing, shaking, pushing, biting, burning, such as iron or hot liquid (forced ingestion), pulling, punching, throwing a child and/or kicking among other physical actions or inaction resulting in injury to the child. Using an implement in the course of correcting a child’s behaviour that could raise the prospect of harming a child, such as a belt, wooden spoon, looped cord, or stick, is also considered abuse (Crosson-Tower, 2020; Jonson-Reid & Drake, 2018; Rimer & Prager, 2016; Tufford, 2020).

Possible signs of physical abuse may include:

  • Injuries in suspicious locations
  • Definable bruise pattern (e.g., hand print, the shape of a serving spoon)
  • Bruising in non-mobile children (e.g., around the chest from holding and shaking baby)
  • Untreated injuries
  • Bald patches, matted hair
  • Evidence that something was used to restrain the child
  • Child cannot recall or explain the injury
  • Child wears long sleeves/long pants even in warm weather
  • Excessive crying
  • Child seems anxious when other children cry
  • Avoidance of physical contact with others
  • Recurrent nightmares or disturbed sleep patterns
  • Behaviour extremes—aggressiveness or withdrawal
  • Poor self-concept
  • Whispered speech
  • Loss of appetite for no apparent reason or excessive appetite
  • Child is wary of adults
  • Re-enactment of abuse using dolls, drawings, or friends
  • Clinging
  • Delinquent behaviour
  • Abrupt decline in school performance
  • Prolonged absence from school or child care (may be due to healing injury before able to attend again without noticing)
  • Mismatch between an injury and the explanation
  • Appears lethargic and not as responsive as before

(Child Abuse and Neglect, n.d.; Crosson-Tower, 2014; Durrant et al., 2006; Fallon et al., 2020; Jonson-Reid & Drake, 2018; Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, 2022;  Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012; Rimer & Prager, 2016; Sedlak et al., 2010; Toronto Children’s Aid Society, n.d.; Tufford, 2020).


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Child Maltreatment: An Introductory Guide With Case Studies Copyright © 2023 by Susan Loosley and Jen Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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