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Physical abuse

What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being physically abused

If a child is deliberately hurt - 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, as children may experience some injuries through accidents or play.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999 or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.

If you are troubled by something you have seen and are unsure if it is the result of physical abuse, contact the NSPCC helpline to discuss your concerns with our trained counsellors.

Why physical abuse happens

Physical abuse remains a problem in the UK.

One child is killed every 10 days in England and Wales, according to Home Office figures.

Parents who physically abuse their children may:

  • be unable to cope with the stress and frustration of parenting
  • have a lack of support from family, friends or the community
  • have learnt bad parenting from others
  • have experienced a violent parent themselves
  • have unrealistic expectations of how a child should behave.

Whatever the situation, there is never a good reason to deliberately injure or harm a child.

Children at risk of physical abuse

Physical abuse can happen in any family, but some children are more at risk than others.

Children who live in families with complex problems such as domestic violence or substance abuse, or with parents who have mental health problems are at increased risk.

Children born prematurely and disabled children are also more vulnerable to physical abuse. No-one knows why this is the case, but the increased demands and stress of caring for a child with special needs could be a reason.

What to look out for: the signs of physical abuse

Injuries which are normal for children
All children have accidents, like bumps and falls. Injuries which are normal for children include:

  • 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.

Injuries caused by physical abuse
The harm caused to children by physical abuse can range from minor injuries to major trauma. These can include:

  • bruising:
    • on the cheeks, ears, palms, arms and feet
    • on the back, buttocks, tummy, hips and backs of legs
    • 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 or scalds:
    • 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
  • fractures
  • scarring
  • poisoning
  • drowning or suffocating
  • head injuries caused by a blow or by shaking
  • fabricated or induced illness.

Mental health or behavioural problems
As well as the physical signs of abuse, children may also suffer mental health or behavioural problems 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.

Effects on adult victims of childhood physical abuse

Physical abuse during childhood can affect a person later in life as an adult and can cause conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.

Where to get help

Knowing the difference between an accidental and intentional injury requires experienced medical opinion.

If you've witnessed an assault or think a child is in immediate danger
Contact the police on 999, or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, without delay.

If you're worried about a child, but unsure
Contact our helpline for advice. You can discuss your concerns with our trained counsellors who 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.

Further advice and support

Find out more about physical abuse and the services the NSPCC offers.

Further advice is available from:

For parents
We also provide advice and support for parents, developing positive parenting techniques:

For professionals
NSPCC inform provides research, statistics and guidance about physical abuse.

ChildLine 0800 1111

Are you a child?

Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.

Get some help

NSPCC helpline

Worried about a child?

Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.

Report a concern

Contact the helpline in:
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Professional resources

Statistics, research, policy and guidance about physical abuse for professionals.

Find out more on NSPCC Inform

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Services in your area

We provide services across the UK to protect children from physical abuse, and to help those children who have been affeced.

See what services are available