Physical abuse What is physical abuse
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
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.
HM Government (2015) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).
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.
Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2003) Co-operating to safeguard children (PDF). Belfast: Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).
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.
Scottish Government (2010) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Scottish Government.
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.
Welsh Assembly Government (2006) Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004 (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.
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.
There were overwith children and young people about
Explanation: There were 8,483 counselling sessions with children and young people about physical abuse in 2016/17. 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? 2017.
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
Handle with care
Minding the Baby
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.
Help and advice for professionals
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.
Research and resources
Miller-Perrin, C.L. and Perrin, R.D. (2013) Child maltreatment: an introduction. London: SAGE.