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Understanding child physical abuse

Learn more about what physical child abuse is, the signs and impacts it can have on a child.

Upset kid crying on stairs while adult swears at them

What is physical child abuse?

Physical abuse refers to non-accidental physical harm (or risk of serious physical harm) to a child by an adult.

  • Physical abuse may be intentional or may be the unintended result of physical punishment or excessive discipline
  • It can be a single act or repeated acts
  • Physical abuse does not always leave visible marks or injuries
  • It is not how bad the mark or injury is but rather the act itself that causes the injury or trauma
  • Abuse can start slowly with a threat or push and get worse over time
  • Child abuse is against the law

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or a life-threatening situation call Triple Zero (000).

Types of child physical abuse

Some examples of physical abuse include:

Hitting, punching or slapping

Choking or suffocating

Kicking, pushing or pulling

Biting, spitting or shaking

Pinching, scratching or burning

Destroying a child’s property

Threatening to hurt a child

Restraining or locking a child up

Force feeding or denying food or sleep

Throwing items or using items to hurt a child

Poisoning or making a child feel unwell with drugs or medicine

Stopping a child from taking their medication

Possible signs of physical abuse

Some indicators of physical abuse may include but are not limited to:

Physical:

  • Child has frequent or multiple injuries
  • Broken bones, dislocated joints, scratches, cuts, welts or burns
  • Bruising or marks that show the shape of an object
  • Drowsiness, vomiting, abdominal pain, fits or dehydration
     

Behavioural:

  • Child is unable to explain an injury or the explanation is vague
  • Explanation of injury seems unlikely or inconsistent with the injury type
  • Arms and legs are covered by clothing in warm weather
  • Seems afraid or frightened of parent/s or other adults
  • Child is not wanting to go home

Impacts of physical abuse

Children may experience a range of emotional, psychological and physical problems as a result of being harmed, including:

Low self-esteem

Suicidal thoughts

Aggressive behaviour

Self-harming

Nightmares or insomnia

Behavioural problems

Distrust of adults

Developmental delays

Depression or anxiety

Physical ailments

Alcohol or drug abuse

Criminal behaviour

Attachment or learning disorders

Increased fear, guilt or self-blame

Post-traumatic stress or eating disorders

Permanent physical injuries or death

Child protection is everyone’s business! Some adults have a legal obligation to notify authorities (these obligations differ between states and territories).

Reporting child abuse

If you have a reason to suspect a child is experiencing harm or is at risk of experiencing harm, contact an authority in your state or territory and talk to them about your concerns.

There is support available

We’re here to help

Encourage the child in your life to contact Kids Helpline if they need some extra support to cope with what has been happening.

You may find talking to somebody outside of the situation helpful. You could try calling Parentline in your state or territory to discuss your concerns.

For some guidance on responding to disclosures of child abuse, see our article on Responding to disclosures of child abuse.

This content was last reviewed 24/07/2018

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