What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being physically abused
If an adult deliberately hurts a child – causing them physical harm, such as cuts, bruises, broken bones or other injuries – it is physical abuse. It can include hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning, and slapping.
It is very difficult to know if an injury or behaviour is the result of physical abuse, but if you are troubled by something you have seen it’s best to get some advice. If you think a child is in immediate danger contact the police on 999 or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.
Being unable to cope with the stress and frustration of parenting can lead to physical abuse. A lack of support from family, friends or community can make this problem worse. Parents who have learned bad parenting from others, perhaps from their own past experiences of a violent parent, may be a factor, as are unrealistic expectations of how a child should behave.
In particular, children born prematurely or disabled are more vulnerable to physical abuse. No-one knows for sure why this is the case, but the increased demands and stress of caring for a child with special needs could be a reason.
Whatever the situation, there is never a good reason to deliberately injure a child.
The harm caused by physical abuse can range from minor injuries to major trauma. These can include:
- burns or scalds
- bite marks
- drowning or suffocating
- head injuries caused by a blow or by shaking
- fabricated or induced illness.
The experience of being harmed may, also, cause mental health and behavioural problems in a child, such as:
- depression and anxiety
- aggression and violence
- problems with relationships and socialising
- trying to hide injuries under clothing
- running away from home
- being distant and withdrawn.
Physical abuse during childhood can affect a person later in life as an adult, for example, it can cause conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder.
All children have accidents, like bumps and falls, which cause injury. However, you may have reasons for thinking that an injury has been inflicted on purpose if:
- an injury strikes you as odd
- a child is injured repeatedly
- a parent delays seeking treatment
- a parent or child gives unconvincing or inconsistent explanations about an injury.
What injuries are normal for children?
- Bruising on the shins, knees, elbows, and backs of the hands.
- Bruising on children who are crawling or walking (especially older children).
- Bruising on the forehead (for toddlers).
- Scalds from hot liquid spills on the upper body.
What could be abuse?
- Bruising on the cheeks, ears, back, buttocks, palms, arms, tummy, hips, backs of legs, and feet.
- Bruising on babies who are not yet crawling or walking.
- A history of bruising.
- Multiple bruises in clusters, usually on the upper arms or outer thighs.
- Bruises which look like they have been caused by fingers, a hand, or an object.
- Burns of the backs of the hands, feet, legs, genitals, or buttocks.
- Burns which have a clear shape, like a circular cigarette burn.
- Large oval shaped bite marks.
As well as the visible signs of injury, physically abused children may also display signs of that abuse in their behaviour: see Effects.
It is not currently against the law for parents to use physical punishment with their own children, if it is 'reasonable'. However, the NSPCC believes that positive parenting techniques are a far better approach.
Knowing the difference between an accidental injury and that which is not requires experienced medical opinion. An injury may have been caused by an accident, it may not, but if you’re concerned about a child’s safety – or if you’ve witnessed an assault – it’s important to seek help for the child.
You can discuss your concerns with the NSPCC. Our counsellors will assess the information you give them and can take action on your behalf, if necessary. Alternatively, you can contact your local police or children's services.
If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999, or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, without delay.
NSPCC: Advice and support for adults concerned about a child.
NSPCC advice for professionals on injuries to children.
Police: Emergency and non-emergency police services.
Women's Aid: Help for women and their children affected by domestic violence.
Are you a child?
Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.
Worried about a child?
Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.
Information for professionals
Get more detailed information from our website for professionals.