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Physical abuse is any deliberate physical force or action (usually by a parent, guardian or caregiver) that results, or could result, in injury to a child. It is different from what is considered reasonable discipline. Physical abuse is also any harm to a child caused by an action or failure to prevent an action that causes injury to the child.  It can include punching, slapping, beating, shaking, burning, biting or throwing a child. Injuries may include bruises, welts, cuts, fractures, burns, or internal injuries. Physical abuse can be one or two isolated incidents or can occur over a prolonged period of time.


The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to those that follow. It is important to realize that the presence of any one indicator is not conclusive proof that a child has been abused. In most instances, abused children will exhibit a number of behavioural and physical indicators.

Physical indicators in children

  • Injuries that are not consistent with explanation

  • Presence of several injuries that are in various stages of healing

  • Presence of various injuries over a period of time

  • Facial injuries in infants and preschool children

  • Injuries inconsistent with the child’s age and developmental phase

  • A lot of bruises in the same area of the body

  • Bruises in the shape of an object, e.g., spoon, hand/fingerprints, belt

  • Burns:

    • from a cigarette

    • in a pattern that looks like an object, e.g., iron

    • wears clothes to cover up injury, even in warm weather

  • Patches of hair missing

  • Signs of possible head injury:

    • swelling and pain

    • nausea or vomiting

    • feeling dizzy

    • bleeding from the scalp or nose

  • Signs of possible injury to arms and legs:

    • pain

    • sensitive to touch

    • cannot move properly

    • limping

  • Breathing causes pain

  • Difficulty raising arms

  • Human bite marks

  • Cuts and scrapes inconsistent with normal play

  • Signs of female genital mutilation, e.g., trouble going to the bathroom

Behavioural indicators in children

  • Cannot remember how injuries happened

  • The story of what happened does not match the injury

  • Refuses or is afraid to talk about injuries

  • Is afraid of adults or of a particular person

  • Does not want to be touched

  • May be very:

    • aggressive

    • unhappy

    • withdrawn

    • obedient and wanting to please

    • uncooperative

  • Is afraid to go home

  • Runs away

  • Is away a lot and when comes back there are signs of healing injury

  • Does not meet developmental milestones as expected

  • Does not get along well with other children

  • Tries to hurt himself, e.g., cutting himself, suicide

  • Discloses abuse

Behaviours observed in adults who abuse children

  • Does not tell the same story as the child about how the injury happened

  • May say that the child seems to have a lot of accidents

  • Severely punishes the child

  • Cannot control anger and frustration

  • Expects too much from the child

  • Talks about having problems dealing with the child

  • Talks about the child as being bad, different, or “the cause of my problems”

  • Shows no affection toward the child

  • Does not go to the doctor right away to have injury checked

  • Has little or no help caring for the child

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