Physical abuse is deliberately hurting a child causing injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts.

It isn’t accidental - children who are physically abused suffer violence such as being hit, kicked, poisoned, burned, slapped or having objects thrown at them. Shaking or hitting babies can cause non-accidental head injuries (NAHI). Sometimes parents or carers will make up or cause the symptoms of illness in their child, perhaps giving them medicine they don’t need and making the child unwell – this is known as fabricated or induced illness (FII).

There’s no excuse for physically abusing a child. It causes serious, and often long-lasting, harm – and in severe cases, death.

Official definitions of physical abuse

England

A form of abuse which may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child

Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child.

Northern Ireland

Physical abuse is the deliberate physical injury to a child, or the wilful or neglectful failure to prevent physical injury or suffering.

This may include hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, confinement to a room or cot, or inappropriately giving drugs to control behaviour.

Scotland

Physical abuse is the causing of physical harm to a child or young person. 

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning or suffocating. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer feigns the symptoms of, or deliberately causes, ill health to a child they are looking after.

Wales

The hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates or induces illness in a child whom they are looking after.

What causes physical abuse 

Adults who physically abuse children may have:

  • emotional or behavioural problems such as difficulty controlling their anger
  • family or relationship problems
  • experienced abuse as a child
  • parenting difficulties including unrealistic expectations of children, not understanding a child’s needs or no idea how to respond to a child
  • health issues.

(Miller-Perrin and Perrin, 2013)

People

Over 9,000 children and young people contacted Childline about physical abuse last year

Explanation: 9,242 children and young people contacted Childline to talk about physical abuse in 2015/16. This includes where the young person has been physically abused by an adult/older person and where they have felt at risk or have been threatened with violence.

See also Indicator 7 in How safe are our children? 2016.

What are non-accidental head injuries (NAHI) 

Babies and toddlers fall over and hit their heads, they may roll off of beds or run into the corner of furniture. But non-accidental head injuries are caused by:

  • violent, sustained shaking
  • being thrown vigorously
  • being hit
  • hitting a hard or soft surface.

An infant's brain is much more fragile than an adult’s brain. Babies also have weak neck muscles and a large head compared to their body so violent or sharp movement of their heads can cause damage to their brains.

Coping with Crying

Helping parents to keep calm and soothe their crying baby.
Coping with Crying service

Handle with care

Advice for parents on safe ways to hold and care for your baby and ways to cope when the crying doesn’t stop.
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Minding the Baby

Minding the Baby is an early intervention programme designed to enhance the mother's relationship with her child.
Minding the Baby service

What is fabricated or induced illness (FII)

Fabricated or induced illness (FII) is when a parent or carer fakes, or creates, the symptoms of an illness in their child. This might include giving a child medicine, tampering with medical equipment or falsifying test results.

Although it’s not very common, FII is a serious form of child abuse.

Signs, symptoms and effects

Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of physical abuse and non-accidental head injuries.
Spotting signs of physical abuse

Children's stories

"At the first session I got to meet other young people... I started to feel a bit more normal and realised for the first time that I wasn’t alone."

Read JB's story

It's Time to demand change

Up to 90% of children who've been abused will develop mental health issues by the time they're 18.

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Our research and services help prevent abuse and support families. Please help us to stop children suffering in silence.

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Help and advice for professionals

Library catalogue

We hold the UK's largest collection of child protection resources and the only UK database specialising in published material on child protection, child abuse and child neglect.

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Research and resources

Research, reports and resources about physical abuse
See research and resources for physical abuse

Information Service

Our free service for people who work with children can help you find the latest policy, practice, research and news on child protection and related subjects.

For more information, call us or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

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References

  1. Miller-Perrin, C.L. and Perrin, R.D. (2013) Child maltreatment: an introduction. London: SAGE.