What is Child Abuse
Child abuse is generally defined as any act of omission or commission that endangers or impairs a child's physical or emotional health and development, and is usually broken into three subcategories: physical, sexual and emotional.

Physical Abuse
Physical abuse is defined as any physical act committed against a child, which results in a non-accidental injury. Examples of physical abuse include severe hitting, slapping, biting, cutting, pushing, poking, burning, twisting, shaking, choking, punching, pinching, squeezing, whipping, kicking, pulling of the hair, legs or arms and dunking in water.

Bodily signs that may indicate physical abuse include bruises, burns, bites, marks, welts, skin punctures, cuts, abrasions, bleeding, broken bones, spiral fractures, tearing of the skin, internal hemorrhaging, and loss of hair. Most, if not all, of these physical signs may also be the result of other natural causes not related to child abuse. It is extremely important that you keep this in mind, both while assessing what happened to you and in any instance in which you observe such bodily signs on another person child or adult.

Behavioral signs that may indicate physical abuse include extreme vigilance, fearfulness, scanning the environment for perceived threats, flinching in a self-protective way, either avoidance or unusually quick attachment to people, hostile or aggressive behavior, self-destructive behavior (such as walking in front of cars or falling out of windows), and other-directed destructive behavior such as setting fires and maiming or killing animals. While we believe that persons exhibiting any of these behavioral signs is likely to have some history of abuse, we again caution you not to assume automatically that child abuse is the cause of such behaviors.

The assault, abandonment and killing of children has been going on since the dawn of civilization, and has only recently become a punishable crime in most, if not all, states. What was once referred to in previous centuries as "soul murder" became defined in 1962 as "battered child syndrome;" now, in recognition that there are other types of child abuse, it is referred to as physical abuse. In 1985, the American Humane Society reported that 22% of all reported cases of abuse involved physical abuse, making it second only to neglect. Physical abuse occurs in all ethnic, occupational and socioeconomic groups, although it may be more pronounced in families living in poverty. Economic hardship, racism and unemployment are stress factors that may prompt family violence. Physical abuse also occurs outside the home in schools, daycare centers, after-school recreation programs and in community youth groups and organizations.

Between the ages of 2 and 12, boys are more frequently physically abused than girls because boys are more likely at this age to present behavior or discipline problems. At this age boys generally have higher activity levels than girls. This can irritate parents or caretakers and lead to abusive corporal punishment. In adolescence, girls become more of a target for physical violence than boys because they are physically more vulnerable. Social roles encourage girls to adopt a more passive approach to the world; as a result, they often find themselves in jeopardy of being dominated by others.

Physical neglect tends to precede actual physical abuse because most children hate being ignored or neglected and will escalate their attention-seeking behavior to engage, as well as enrage, their parents. Parents or other adults who physically abuse were usually treated in a similar manner as children; thus do abused children often become abusers themselves. The chances of abuse increase if the children remind their parents/abusers of someone whom they do not like or about whom they have unresolved or ambivalent feelings. Children with special needs or disabilities are at greater risk of being abused because they demand more from their parents.

Physical abuse often begins under the guise of punishment and ends as punishment gone awry. What starts out as corporal punishment intended to be purposeful and restrained can often become excessive. It is often an expression of the parents'/abusers' own personal conflicts. In some cases, physical abuse takes the form of extreme punishing behavior that the parent imposes on the child for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Corporal punishment that is sudden, arbitrary or not explained as a consequence of some particular behavior on the part of the child is generally considered abuse. Hitting a child in sensitive areas of the body such as the face, stomach or genitals is severe punishment and is reportable as child abuse.

Punishment that is meted out to prevent some future behavior before that behavior has actually been initiated by the child for example, burning a child's hand as a way of teaching him/her not to touch the stove is generally considered abusive. Physically disciplining young children before they are able to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment is generally considered abusive. Any requirement or demand that calls for the child to do something that he or she cannot physically or developmentally accomplish, such as toilet training prior to the age of one or taking responsibility for the care of younger siblings, is generally considered abusive.

Go to journal questions for physical abuse

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© 2007 THE MORRIS CENTER, Revised 11/06