Physical Abuse

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 5 minute read

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The Scottish and Welsh governments have removed the defence in law of ‘reasonable punishment’ when a child is smacked or hit by their parent as a means of discipline. The defence is currently retained in England and Northern Ireland, but it does not apply in cases of assault causing actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, or cruelty to a child (for example, if a child has a lasting mark or injury, or when an implement has been used).

As part of growing up, children will get bruises and other injuries accidentally. These are more likely to be in certain areas of the body more than others, for example, most accidental injuries are seen on bony parts of the body (e.g., shins, knees and elbows).  

Female genital mutilation and fabricated or induced illness can seriously damage a child’s long-term physical and mental health. In England and Wales, certain professionals, including teachers, have a mandatory duty to report ‘discovered’ cases of FGM to the police. 

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The NSPCC says it’s uncertain how many children in the UK experience physical abuse. A study of 2,275 11 to 17-year-olds suggests that around 1-in-14 children in the UK have been physically abused.

The NSPCC also reports a significant rise in child cruelty and neglect offences in England, with recorded offences of adults neglecting, mistreating, or assaulting children doubling over the last 5 years.


“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

Anyone working with children and young people should be aware that abuse, neglect and other safeguarding issues are rarely standalone events that can be covered by one definition or label. In many cases, multiple issues will overlap.

If you work with children, you are well-positioned to identify physical or any other form of abuse or neglect, including child-on-child abuse, online threats, and the encouragement and/or facilitation of physical abuse.

We should not rely on children and young people to identify their own abuse – they may not know or consider that they are being abused or may be unable to tell us verbally for various reasons. Always look out for potential signs of physical abuse.

Additional vulnerabilities

Physical abuse can happen to any child. However, it may be more likely in families experiencing:

  • poverty;
  • poor housing;
  • substance misuse;
  • mental health issues;
  • relationship problems;
  • domestic abuse;
  • isolation or a lack of support;
  • the effects of childhood abuse or neglect.

Babies and children with disabilities are at higher risk of suffering physical abuse, especially those who are unable to tell someone what's happening or don't understand that what's happening to them is abusive.

Spot the signs

Accidents can and do happen, however, we should be prepared to ask questions about marks and injuries that we see. Physical abuse can be a one-off incident or several incidents. 

Physical indicators

  • unexplained injuries or burns, particularly if they reoccur;
  • untreated injuries;
  • bruising/tenderness/abrasions around the face, neck, torso, upper arms and legs;
  • bruising/tenderness to soft areas such as cheeks or buttocks;
  • bite marks;
  • burns/scalds, noting pattern or spread;
  • friction burns;
  • tender/swollen marks on the skin, especially if they appear to outline an implement/broken skin;
  • vomiting, drowsiness, seizures, breathing problems.

 Behavioural indicators

  • improbable excuses given for the injuries;
  • refusal to discuss the injuries;
  • descriptions of punishment that seem excessive;
  • shrinking from/flinching at physical contact or sudden movement;
  • refusal or avoidance of changing for P.E., swimming, etc.;
  • keeping the body covered, even in very hot weather;
  • self-harm;
  • aggression towards others;
  • over-compliant or watchful behaviour;
  • deterioration in achievement or absence from education;
  • fearful of going home or of parents being contacted.


  • Physical abuse may be inflicted by adults or children. It may take place in or outside the family home.
  • Bruising/tenderness/swelling and other injuries in pre-mobile babies or children with very limited mobility is always a cause for immediate concern.
  • It can be harder to detect bruising on darker skin, so staff should also look out for tenderness or minor swelling over the injured area. 
  • Some head injuries (including potentially fatal ones) and fractures may be present without any apparent bruising or other injuries.
  • Contrary to popular belief, according to research by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health it’s impossible to age bruises accurately based on a naked eye assessment. 

What to do

  • Observe and ask about injuries – when an accidental injury has occurred people expect to be asked how they were hurt. When non-accidental injuries have occurred, the response to non-leading questions signal when to be worried, for example, when no answer is given, the account does not seem to tally with the injury, or when accounts differ or change. 
  • Record any injuries - use a body map marking and describing the location, size and appearance.
  • Seek medical advice if uncertain – check with a doctor or other appropriately trained medical professional.
  • Make immediate referrals when necessary - for example, if a child has been seriously harmed, if it appears a child has been hit with an implement or if the child is fearful.
  • Challenge cultural assumptions – just because something is allegedly culturally acceptable does not make it legal, non-abusive or mean that it should be ignored.
  • Know the signs and what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident in raising physical abuse as a possibility.
  • Always ask questions and challenge preconceptions.  

Promote Safeguarding

Check young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers, with your staff, and other children/adults outside their family. 

Create an environment where it’s okay to talk - even about the most difficult things. Children and young people should have someone to talk to in your setting who takes responsibility to listen to them, talk with them, their families and other staff.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know children and young people are safe.

DSL Training Materials

  • Physical abuse scenario (EYFS) – DSL Information sheet

  • Physical abuse scenario (16+) – DSL information sheet

  • Physical abuse scenario – 16+ settings

  • Physical abuse scenario (secondary schools) – DSL Information sheet

  • Physical abuse scenario – SEND focus

  • Physical abuse scenario (SEND focus) – DSL Information sheet

  • Physical abuse scenario – secondary schools

  • Physical abuse scenario (primary schools) – DSL Information sheet

  • Physical abuse scenario – Primary schools

  • Presentation

  • Physical abuse scenario – EYFS settings

  • Physical abuse scenario (care settings) – DSL Information sheet

  • Physical abuse scenario – Care Settings

  • Physical abuse – Quiz (Answer Sheet)

  • Physical abuse – Quiz

  • Handout for staff

  • Presenter Notes


  • Speak out Stay Safe

  • Child physical abuse in England and Wales: Year ending 2019

  • Bruises on children: core info leaflet

  • Thermal injuries on children: core info leaflet

  • Fractures in children: core info leaflet

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