Physical abuse

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing phyiscal harm to a child. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptons of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child. (1.33, Working together to Safeguard Children, 2010)

Overview

Physical abuse 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.

The extent of physical abuse is hard to establish, but is believed to be underreported. A report commissioned the NSPCC estimated that 7% of children were physically abused by their carer. See Child Maltreatment in the UK: A study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect – NSPCC Cawson et al 2000.

Physical abuse can lead to neurological damage, injury and, in extreme situations, death. Although physical abuse can be particularly dangerous for babies and young children – e.g. shaking a child can cause major injury or death – its impact, both in terms of physical and emotional wellbeing is of major concern for children and young people of all ages. Physical abuse is a traumatic experience to any child who is victim of it or who witnesses physical abuse within their family environment.

Physical abuse may be particular prevalent in households where there are issues of domestic violence or drug and alcohol abuse.

Physical abuse of children has been linked to aggressive behaviour, emotional and behavioural problems and educational difficulties.

In June 2009, a report commissioned by the Department for Children Families and Schools, concluded that the effectiveness on many of the interventions used in practice in cases of physical abuse have not been well studied. However, the report authors felt that there is strong evidence that parent-focused interventions that concentrated on improving parenting skills and parent-child interactions are effective in reducing inappropriate parenting, improving positive skills and reducing child problem behaviour. For children being looked after as a result of physical abuse, treatment foster care (involving training in behaviour management and intensive support for the foster carer and behavioural and therapeutic input for the child) appeared to be effective in improving outcomes for maltreated children.

For further details see Systematic Reviews of interventions following physical abuse: helping practitioners and expert witnesses improve the outcome of child abuse, Montgomery et al 2009.