Understanding Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the second most common type of child abuse, second only to neglect.

Cropped version of "Fear." CC image courtesy of Flickr, Patrik.
Cropped version of “Fear.” CC image courtesy of Flickr, Patrik.

In 2012, according to the Children’s Bureau, an estimated 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in the U.S. 18.3 percent of those victims (over 125,000 children) suffered physical abuse. However, the actual number of physical abuse victims and survivors may be higher due to underreported or undetected problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics explains why this may be the case:

“Physical abuse remains an underreported (and often undetected) problem for several reasons including individual and community variations in what is considered ‘abuse,’ inadequate knowledge and training among professionals in the recognition of abusive injuries, unwillingness to report suspected abuse, and professional bias. For example, in 1 study, 31% of children and infants with abusive head trauma were initially misdiagnosed. Misdiagnosed victims were more likely to be younger, white, have less severe symptoms, and live with both parents when compared with abused children who were not initially misdiagnosed.”

Children with disabilities are particularly at risk of physical abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has suggested that, “The rate of physical abuse is 2.1 times higher among children with disabilities than children without disabilities.” Considering that many homeschooling families specifically choose to homeschool because of children’s disabilities (in fact, HSLDA has claimed that homeschooling is “the ideal environment for special needs children”), this is a statistic all homeschooling communities should take to heart. It ought not provoke suspicion of families homeschooling children with disabilities (that would be entirely inappropriate and counter-productive), but it’s something to keep in mind when guiding support systems for people more likely to need them.

Like any other form of child abuse, physical abuse can have intense and long-term consequences. Physical abuse inflicts psychological trauma and thus, as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has noted, “Children who are physically abused can develop child traumatic stress.” NCTSN has also found that physical abuse may “impair the healthy development of the brain.” It also can alter how a child’s brain processes social interactions. According to the New York Times, “Repeatedly exposed to the rage of unpredictable adults, abused children appear to develop an exquisite sensitivity to the emotional signals of anger.” This leads to future socialization problems because, “When the children move on to other settings, where the people around them behave more rationally, their perceptual systems fail to make the shift. Instead…they may see anger when it is not there, or spend so much time scanning for the signs of impending rage that they miss other important social clues.”

Of course, the most significant possible side effect of physical abuse is severe injury or death. Physical discipline gone too far, or intentional injuring of a child, can incapacitate or kill that child. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated, “Children with abusive head or abdominal injuries are more likely to die or become more severely incapacitated than are children with head or abdominal injuries caused by accidents.”


Defining physical abuse


The international standard for physical abuse, according to the United Nations and the World Health Organization, is “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against a child, by an individual or group, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity.”

One difficulty many people have when it comes to recognizing and reporting physical abuse is knowing what actions are exactly abusive. For example, at what point does spanking legally cross the line from legal physical discipline and become illegal child abuse? Many states’ laws on physical abuse include phrases like “reasonable discipline,” “risk of harm,” “substantial harm,” or “substantial risk” — but then do not further clarify those terms. In 19 of the U.S. states, corporal punishment is still legal in public schools. In other states, public school teachers spanking their students would be considered outright child abuse.

Because of the recent, high-profile case of football star Adrian Peterson being arrested for beating his child, many discussions have arisen about this very subject. These discussions have also been at the forefront of Homeschoolers Anonymous‘s series on corporal punishment, both To Break Down a Child and Hurts Me More Than You. Whatever your beliefs may be about physical discipline, the testimonies of homeschool alumni demonstrate that, at the very least, how parents intend to physically discipline is not always how they actually do so. Furthermore, the messages they intend to communicate via physical discipline are not always the messages that children receive. For these and other reasons, HARO strongly recommends that parents learn alternatives to corporal punishment, such as gentle parenting.

In the U.S., the federal government considers child physical abuse to be “nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child.” Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Under federal standards, physical discipline (such as spanking or paddling) is currently not considered abuse.

An important clarification comes from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: “physical abuse” shouldn’t necessarily be defined by (1) a single moment and (2) by what’s considered “normal.” NCTSN says that, “Usually physical abuse is not a one-time event, but a pattern of repeated, deliberate acts. Caregivers may not understand that what they are doing is abusive. They may consider it ‘normal punishment’ that is warranted by the child’s misbehavior.” What some people consider “normal” can indeed be abusive. As the American Humane Association points out, “Many times, physical abuse results from inappropriate or excessive physical discipline. A parent or caretaker in anger may be unaware of the magnitude of force with which he or she strikes the child.”


Characteristics of physical abusers


Just like child sexual predators, perpetrators of physical abuse against children transcend any one demographic group. There are many stereotypes and myths about physical abusers — for example, that African-American parents in the U.S. are more abusive than white parents — but such stereotypes and myths are counter-productive, damaging, and misleading. 

What do we know about the average physical abuser, then? Well, we know that with regards to child abuse in general, most perpetrators are parents or caretakers. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), “In most cases, children are abused by parents, caretakers and other family members who live with the child.” The NSPCC also reports that having a step-parent increases the risk of a child being physically abused: “Researchers in the United States have argued that biological parents are less likely than step-parents to physically abuse their children (Daly and Wilson, 1999).”

Whereas child sexual abuse is more often perpetrated by males, the NSPCC has found that child physical abuse is more often perpetrated by females. The NSPCC reported that, according to one study, “Female carers are more likely to physically abuse their children with 49% of incidents involving women compared to 40% involving men (May-Chahal and Cawson, 2005). This is partly due to the fact that women spend more time caring for children.” However, when it comes to severe physical abuse, males are more often the perpetrators: “Men were responsible for severe physical abuse in 72.9 per cent of cases involving 11–17-year olds (Radford et al, 2011). A US study found that male carers were 3 times more likely to kill their children than female carers (Yampolskaya et al, 2009).” Another interesting data point is that younger mothers are more likely to be physically abusive than older mothers: “Younger mothers physically abuse their children more frequently than older mothers. The mother’s younger age has also been linked to other contributing factors such as lower economic status, lack of social support and higher stress levels.”

It is important to note that the fact that mothers are more likely to physically abuse their children than fathers does not apply to all cultures. For example, the World Health Organization found that, in Bahrain, “Fathers were the most common physical abusers (36%), followed by mothers (28%).” Interestingly, the WHO also noted that male perpetrators of physical abuse were more predominant “especially where patriarchal attitudes prevail.” Considering that many conservative Christian homeschooling communities adhere to teachings of patriarchy, this could possibly change how homeschoolers should approach the problems of physical abuse in homeschooling.


Warning Signs of Physical Abuse


Unsurprisingly, physical abuse leaves the most visible warning signs of all types of child abuse. Physical signs that a child may be experiencing physical abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • Abdominal injuries (such injuries may not show outward signs, but symptoms like vomiting or fever could indicate such injuries exist)
  • Abnormal loss of hair (caused by hair being pulled out)
  • Bruises and welts, especially when in clusters and/or of varying colors (in which case repeated abuse may be a factor)
  • Burns and scalds that show the markings of items used to inflicted them (such as a cigarette or iron)
  • Fractures or swollen joints in children of 2 years or younger
  • History of repeated injuries
  • Injuries cased by shaking, such as brain or eye damage

There are also behavioral warning signs of physical abuse. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Child does not register emotion when physically hurt
  • Child offers bizarre explanations of physical injuries
  • Child wears clothing inappropriate for the season (for example, long-sleeved shirts on warm days to hide injuries)
  • Child displays unusual fear of physical interaction with adults
  • Child becomes disruptive or destructive towards self and/or others
  • Child regresses into age-inappropriate behavior, such as wetting the bed or sucking one’s thumb
  • Child becomes increasingly passive or withdrawn
  • Child refuses to undress for necessary activities such as physical exercise activities or hospital physical exams

Finally, there are also behavior warning signs for parents who physically abuse. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Child’s parent gives inadequate or unbelievable excuses for injuries such as “Child bruises easily” or “Child is prone to accidents”
  • Child’s parent does not seek, or delay seeking, medical treatment of child’s injuries
  • Child’s parent continually switches what doctor or hospital the child is taken to
  • Child’s parent appears unconcerned about the child’s injuries
  • Child’s parent constantly refers to child as “bad” or “evil”
  • Child’s parent is antagonistic or suspicious of social activities and other people


Preventing Physical Abuse


There are many steps that you as a fellow parent, homeschool leader, or homeschooling organization can take to prevent physical abuse in your community. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

First, make it a community habit to always report physical abuse.

The American Humane Association says that, “If you suspect child abuse is occurring, first report it to the local child protective services agency (often called ‘social services’ or ‘human services’) in your county or state. Professionals who work with children are required by law to report reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect. Furthermore, in 20 states, citizens who suspect abuse or neglect are required to report it. ‘Reasonable suspicion’ based on objective evidence, which could be firsthand observation or statements made by a parent or child, is all that is needed to report.”

Second, offer classes in your homeschooling community to help parents learn healthy parenting skills.

Parenting is a difficult task, and even more difficult once homeschool responsibilities get added to that task. Have your homeschool co-op or organization offer free parenting skills courses to new and struggling parents. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has helpful material in this regard.

Third, encourage parents and families in your homeschooling community to learn alternatives to physical discipline.

There are many alternatives to harsh and punitive discipline methods like spanking or restraining a child. Seek out resources about those alternatives — gentle parenting is one example.

Fourth, create a no-shame environment where parents or families who are struggling can come forward and ask for assistance.

There is an abidance of support available for families at risk of abuse through your local social services — whether those are from child protection agencies, mental health facilities, churches, etc. Child abuse doesn’t just result from “evil” people; it can just as easily result from difficulty coping with stressful situations. Parents and families who are losing their ability to cope should be encouraged to admit they need help. Create a culture where connecting with support systems is welcomed.

Fifth, teach parents and families how to cope with stress

As we just said, child abuse can result from difficulty coping with stressful situations. Hold training seminars for parents and families about how to gain stress management skills. Prevent Child Abuse American has great suggestions for this in their “Twelve Alternatives to Lashing out at Your Child” handout.

Sixth, educate your community about child abuse and neglect.

Preventing physical abuse in your homeschooling community requires that your community learns the warning signs of abuse as well as how to report abuse.

Seventh, teach your community the right way to respond to a child who comes forward with an abuse disclosure.

It is important that children feel safe and trusted when they come forward with abuse disclosures. Teach your community how to respond in the appropriate manner.


For more information about physical abuse, see the following resources:

Coalition for Children, “Recognizing Physical Abuse”

Dr. David Kolko, “Questions And Answers About Child Physical Abuse”

National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s free training videos on physical abuse

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “Physical Punishment: What Parents Should Know”

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “Raising Well-Behaved Kids: What Parents Should Know”

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “People who abuse children”

Prevent Child Abuse America, “Twelve Alternatives to Lashing out at Your Child”

South Eastern CASA Centre Against Sexual Assault, “What You Can Do And Say To Help The Child Who Discloses Physical Abuse”