Physical Abuse

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

It is important to be aware that the Scottish and Welsh governments have removed the defence in law of ‘reasonable punishment’ where a child is smacked or hit by their parent . The defence is currently retained in England and Northern Ireland; however, it does not apply in cases of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, or cruelty to a child (for example, where a child has a lasting mark or injury, or where an implement has been used).

As part of growing up, children will get bruises and other injuries accidentally, however these are more likely to be in some areas of the body than others, for example most accidental bruises are seen on bony parts of the body (e.g. shins, knees and elbows).  As it can be harder to detect bruising on darker skin, staff should also look out for tenderness or minor swelling over the area of injury. It should also be noted that some head injuries (including fatal) and fractures may be present without any apparent bruising or other injuries.

Contrary to widely held belief, bruises cannot be aged accurately, with research suggesting that 50% of people who aged a bruise by its colour were wrong in 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 staff  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 most cases, multiple issues will overlap with one another.

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 or mean that it should be ignored.

Physical indicators

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



Behavioural indicators

  • improbable excuses given for the injuries;
  • refusal to discuss the injuries;
  • describing of punishment which seems excessive;
  • shrinking from / flinching at physical contact or sudden movement;
  • 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 schoolwork, or other change in behaviour;
  • fears to go home or have parents contacted.

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

Physical abuse may be inflicted by adults or children.  It may take place in or outside the family home.

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

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 physical or any other form of abuse or neglect, including child-on-child abuse.

Children and young people struggling with some of these issues should have someone to talk to in your setting who takes responsibility to listen to them, talk with them, their family and other staff, and who can take action to keep them safe.

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 and indicators such as those outlined above.

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, the answers to these innocent, non-leading questions provide the basis for understanding when to be worried, such as when no answer is given, 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, and / or 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 or other children / adults outside their family and with staff. Create an 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 staff summarising physical abuse
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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