Physical Abuse FAQS

What Is Physical Abuse

The precise definition of child physical abuse varies among states, the District of Columbia, and the US territories. All these entities agree that physical abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver commits an act that results in physical injury to a child or adolescent, such as red marks, cuts, welts, bruises, muscle sprains, or broken bones, even if the injury was unintentional. Physical abuse can occur when physical punishment goes too far or a parent lashes out in anger.

Who Is Physically Abused?

Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk for physical abuse. Physical abuse affects both boys and girls across neighborhoods, communities, and countries around the world. Children ages 4–7 and 12–15 are at the greatest risk of being physically abused. Very young children are most susceptible to receiving serious injuries.

How Can You Tell If A Child Has Been Physically Abused?

It can be difficult to determine from a child’s behavior or emotional state whether abuse has occurred. The best way to know if a child has been abused is if the child tells you. Physical signs may include welts and bruises in various stages of healing, fingernail marks, human bite marks, burns, lacerations, abrasions in the pattern of an instrument, and missing, loose, or broken teeth. It is also very possible for a child to be physically abused without anyone noticing if the child’s injuries are hidden by clothing.

Why Don't Children Tell About Abuse?

There are many reasons why children don’t tell about physical abuse, including:

  • Fear that their parents will be mad at them or will hurt them worse for telling
  • Desire not to get their parents into trouble
  • Fear of being removed from their homes
  • A belief that it’s okay for their parents to hurt them
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Shame or guilt
  • Belief that they deserve the abuse for their “bad” behavior

What Should You Do If You Suspect Abuse

Whether or not you are mandated to report child abuse to the child protection agency varies from state to state. Even if you are not mandated to report abuse, there is no law against making an abuse report if you have a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused. The identity of the person making the child abuse report is not shared with anyone other than child protection services workers. Some states also allow anonymous reporting. Call 1-800-25-ABUSE (1-800-252-2873) if you suspect a child is being abused. 

Information on this page adapted from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Why Don't Children Tell About Abuse?

There are many reasons why children don’t tell about physical abuse, including:

  • Fear that their parents will be mad at them or will hurt them worse for telling
  • Desire not to get their parents into trouble
  • Fear of being removed from their homes
  • A belief that it’s okay for their parents to hurt them
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Shame or guilt
  • Belief that they deserve the abuse for their “bad” behavior

What Should You Do If You Suspect Abuse

Whether or not you are mandated to report child abuse to the child protection agency varies from state to state. Even if you are not mandated to report abuse, there is no law against making an abuse report if you have a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused. The identity of the person making the child abuse report is not shared with anyone other than child protection services workers. Some states also allow anonymous reporting. Call 1-800-25-ABUSE (1-800-252-2873) if you suspect a child is being abused. 

Information on this page adapted from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.