Physical abuse

Physical abuse includes inappropriate chastisement and premeditated abuse. Where parents have smacked children it will be abuse where the child has been injured/bruised or an implement used.

As part of growing up children will get bruises and other injuries, however these are more likely in some areas than others, for example most accidental bruises are seen on bony parts of the body (e.g. shins, knees and elbows).  Children can also have fractures of certain bones (e.g. rib) without any bruising.

Bruises cannot be aged accurately, with research suggesting that 50% of people who aged a bruise by its colour were wrong with their estimate.

With any injury, if you are uncertain the recommendation is that medical advice is sought, usually from a doctor or other appropriately trained member of medical staff.

Ideally any injuries should be recorded on a body map marking location, size and appearance.

Definition 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.”

Keeping Children Safe in Education

Quotation marks

All school and college staff should be aware that abuse, neglect and safeguarding issues are rarely standalone events that can be covered by one definition or label. In most cases, multiple issues will overlap with one another. (Keeping Children Safe in Education)

Spotting the signs


Accidents can and do happen, however we should all be prepared to ask questions about marks and injuries that we see.  Physical abuse can be a one off incident or a number of incidents.  It is important that we feel able to ask questions and challenge preconceptions.  We also need to challenge any cultural assumptions – just because something is culturally acceptable does not make it legal.

Physical indicators

  • unexplained injuries or burns, particularly if they reoccur
  • untreated, or lingering injuries
  • bruises/abrasions around the face, neck, torso, upper arms and legs
  • bruising to soft areas such as cheeks
  • bite marks
  • burns/scalds noting pattern or spread – e.g. cigarette burns
  • wheals which suggest beatings



Behavioural indicators

  • improbable excuses given for the injuries
  • refusal to discuss the injuries
  • admission of punishment which seems excessive
  • shrinking from physical contact
  • refusal or avoidance of changing for P.E. swimming etc
  • keeping body covered even in very hot weather
  • self-harming
  • aggression towards others
  • over compliant or watchful behaviour
  • deterioration in school work, or other change in behaviour
  • fears to go home or have parents contacted

Physical abuse may also occur where a parent fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces an illness in a child.

Physical abuse may also take place outside the home and may not be inflicted by adults on children but by peers and may be part of other abuse such as bullying.

Bruising in pre-mobile babies or children with very limited mobility is always a cause for immediate concern.

Physical abuse also includes inappropriate chastisement and premeditated abuse. Where parents have smacked children it will be abuse where the child has been injured/bruised or an implement used or where sufficient force has been used to leave marks.

If you work with children on a regular basis, for example, as a practitioner working in a school or early years setting, you are well positioned to be able to identify abuse or neglect, including peer on peer abuse.

Young people struggling with some of these issues should have someone to talk to in the school who takes responsibility to listen to them, to talk to family and other teachers, and who can take action to keep them safe.

We should not rely on young people to identify their own abuse – often they don’t know they are being abused, or are unable to tell us for whatever reason. Look for the following potential indicators of risk:

What you can do

Observe and ask about injuries – where accidental injury has occurred people expect to be asked how they were hurt. Where non-accidental injuries have occurred these innocent, non-leading questions provide the basis for understanding when to be worried, such as when the account does not seem to tally with the injury, or when accounts differ or are changed. Some injuries require immediate referral, for example serious harm, where it appears a child has been hit with an implement or where the child is fearful.

Check young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers and with your staff. Create the environment where it’s ok to talk even about the most difficult things.

Spot the signs & know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident in raising physical abuse as a possibility.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know they’re safe.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising physical abuse
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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