Physical Abuse

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse

Physical abuse refers to ‘any non-accidental physical act inflicted upon a child by a person having the care of a child’. It is not always a result of intent to hurt a child but sometimes can be justified as being a form of discipline. However when it is fear based, and involves unpredictability or lashing out in anger, it constitutes physical abuse.  Physical abuse is the type of abuse most likely to be accompanied by another form, specifically emotional abuse or neglect. When a parent or caregiver ‘makes up’ an illness it is also considered physical abuse.

Adults who physically abuse children may have unrealistic expectations of their child, not understanding the child’s needs or how to interact with them. This can be fuelled by their own health, relationship, child abuse histories or manifest with emotional or behavioural challenges including anger management issues.

Signs in childhood

Physically abused children find it difficult relating to their peers and the adults around them. The constant threat of violence at home makes them perpetually vigilant and mistrustful, and they may be overly domineering and aggressive in their attempts to predict and control other people’s behaviour. They are also vulnerable to “emotional storms”, or instances of overwhelming emotional responses to everyday situations. These “storms” can take the form of profound grief, fear, or rage.

Physically abused children may also have problems with academic achievement, physical development and coordination, developing friendships and relationships, aggression and anger management, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Signs in adulthood

Adults physically abused in childhood are at increased risk of either aggressive and violent behaviour, or shy and avoidant behaviour leading to rejection or re-victimisation. This polarised behaviour is often driven by hyper-vigilance and the anticipation of threat and violence even in everyday situations. Men with a history of physical abuse in childhood are particularly prone to violent behaviour, and physically abused men are over-represented amongst violent and sexual offenders.



The long-term impact of child abuse is far-reaching; some studies indicate that, without the right support, the effects of childhood abuse can last a lifetime.

  • Child abuse survivors demonstrate
    • Poor mental health: are almost two and a half times as likely to have poor mental health outcomes,
    • Unhappiness: are four times more likely to be unhappy even in much later life
    • Poor physical health: are more likely to have poor physical health.
  • Childhood physical and sexual abuse
    • Medical diseases: increases the risk of having three or more medical diseases, including cardiovascular events in women
    • Relationships: causes a higher prevalence of broken relationships, lower rates of marriage in late life,
    • Isolation/social disconnection: cause lower levels of social support and an increased risk of living alone
    • Behavioural health effects: is associated with suicidal behaviour, increased likelihood of smoking, substance abuse, and physical inactivity.

The impact of child abuse does not end when the abuse stops and the long-term effects can interfere with day-to-day functioning. However, it is possible to live a full and constructive life, and even thrive – to enjoy a feeling of wholeness, satisfaction in your life and work as well as genuine love and trust in your relationships. Understanding the relationship between your prior abuse and current behaviour is the first step towards ‘recovery’.

Over two decades of research have demonstrated potential negative impact of child abuse and neglect on mental health including:

•    depression

•    anxiety disorders

•    poor self-esteem

•    aggressive behaviour

•    suicide attempts

•    eating disorders

•    use of illicit drugs

•    alcohol abuse

•    post-traumatic stress

•    dissocation

•    sexual difficulties

•    self-harming behaviours

•    personality disorders.

Victims of child abuse and neglect are more likely to commit crimes as juveniles and adults.

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