What Is Physical Abuse And How Do You Identify A Victim?

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated August 13, 2019

Reviewer Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH

Physical abuse is defined as any deliberate act, behavior or physical force by an individual or individuals against someone which causes them bodily harm, injury, trauma or puts their life in danger like kicking, punching, burning etc. An example would be a husband who hits his wife across the face during an argument knowing fully well it's going to hurt her. Women and men in abusive relationships are often victims of physical abuse.

Physical abuse can and in most cases does, play a role in the cycle of domestic abuse and more often than not goes hand in hand with controlling behavior, emotional and verbal abuse and other forms of violence like stalking, sexual assault and murder.

Physical Abuse Causes Serious Harm to People And It Should Not Be Ignored
Discuss Issues Surrounding Abuse With A Licensed Therapist Today

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Children are particularly vulnerable to physical abuse and it can at times stem from disciplining tactics that are taken to the extreme, for example, a parent who hits their child with a bat because they misbehaved, and it results in a broken arm, bruises or another injury or a parent.

Research has shown that children who are victims of physical abuse are at a greater risk for developing aggressive behavior as they get older, they may develop learning problems, and have issues with self-esteem. They are also more likely to engage in criminal behavior and develop drug and alcohol addictions or engage in promiscuous behavior. They also suffer from emotional problems and can develop depression or suicidal tendencies.

What Are The Symptoms of Physical Abuse?

The symptoms of physical abuse are universal and include all or some of the following:

  • Bruises (like a split lip, black eye);
  • Fractures (broken ribs, wrists, legs etc.);
  • Burns (cigarettes, hot liquid etc.);
  • Head injuries;
  • Medical or dental problems that go untreated.

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In addition to the symptoms above, children can display some or all of the following emotional and psychological symptoms:

  • Emotionally and physically withdraws from loved one;
  • Anxious, clingy or dependent behavior;
  • Has difficulty with sleeping and eating;
  • Becomes depressed;
  • Displays aggressive behavior, angry outbursts towards others;
  • Wets the bed;
  • Has nightmares;
  • Has suicidal thoughts and tendencies.

Parents should keep a close eye on their children and watch for any changes in their behavior because physical abuse doesn't always come from parents, it can be an aunt, uncle, a grandparent, a sibling, a teacher etc. Learn and understand the signs of physical abuse and intervene if you think something is off. Encourage open communication within the family and make sure your child knows they can trust you and count on you.

Physical abuse is something that stays with the victim for many years, sometimes forever. Depending on the type and length of abuse, it can have a deep and lasting psychological impact on the child / individual. As they grow up it can affect their ability to form trusting relationships with others and may lead to them behaving in a similar manner, thus continuing the cycle of abuse from one generation to the next.

Who is that risk?

While physical abuse can affect anyone irrespective of race, sex, culture or country of origin, some groups and individuals are more susceptible to abuse. Within these groups, women and children are at a higher risk for abuse.

  • Children who come from dysfunctional families where one or more parent has a drug or alcohol problem or if a family member suffers from a mental illness
  • Children in families where domestic abuse is present
  • Disabled children and babies
  • Individuals who grow up in poor, impoverished areas
  • Women who dropped out of school or didn't finish high school
  • Low income households
  • Teenage mothers
  • Gender based roles

This is not to say all children who grow up in an environment described above will be abused while children who grow up in a different environment are never abused. Nobody can pinpoint quite why any individual is abused and there is no exact science. However, research and studies have shown children who come from troubled backgrounds are more likely to become victims of physical abuse and are more likely to accept abuse in the future at the hands of a partner or spouse.

Biology, community beliefs and practices and the quality of interpersonal relationships are some additional factors that play a role in the presence of physical abuse. For example, many women grow up believing their husbands have a right to physically abuse them and they must accept this and remain subservient and submissive to the men in their lives.

Physical abuse is a very real problem and one of growing concern globally. Studies and surveys conducted by World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that:

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men faces one form or another of physical abuse;
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 become victims of violent abuse;
  • Every one minute, approximately 20 people - both men and women - are being physically abused (mainly by an intimate partner) in the United States, this translates into more than 10 million individuals;
  • Approximately 38% of murdered women were killed as a result of physical violence by their partners.

Physical Abuse Causes Serious Harm to People And It Should Not Be Ignored
Discuss Issues Surrounding Abuse With A Licensed Therapist Today

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How To Know If You're a Victim of Physical Abuse

The clearest and biggest indicator of whether you're a victim of physical abuse are bruises and injuries on your body. Ask yourself this, did someone you love and trust hurt you deliberately? Did they knowingly do something to you that caused you bodily harm or caused you to suffer a trauma or injury?

If the answer to either one of these questions were a yes, you are a victim of physical abuse.

Sometimes, physical abuse doesn't start by being physical from day one. This is especially true in cases of domestic violence and can make it difficult to understand or realize that you're in an abusive relationship. Your partner or spouse may test the waters by subtly putting you down, exerting controlling behavior and being emotionally manipulative (for example, telling you things like "If you really loved him you would stop seeing this friend.")

To you they may seem like little concessions and quirks but given the chance to grow these types of behavior can escalate into physical abuse. If you find yourself fearing your partner or always experiencing anxiety around him/her, terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, you're probably in an unhealthy and damaging relationship.

It's not abnormal for someone to question whether they truly are victims of physical abuse because the abuse may be sporadic (once or twice), very minor and does not cause any lasting damage or harm. Your abuser may apologize immediately after or buy you gifts to make up. This does not mitigate the abuse. Regardless of frequency, the extent of the harm or your abuser's remorse, if you've been on the other side of a physical assault even once, it's physical abuse. Keep in mind that just because the assault hasn't been severe or damaging this time does not mean it won't be the next time. For example, if your partner pushes you and you fall down the stairs, your injury can be severe, even life threatening.


Do the points in this article resonate with you? Are you questioning whether you might be a victim of physical abuse? If you have even the smallest of doubts get some help right away. Speak to a doctor or a trusted confidante and explain to them what you're going through. Remember that any form of physical abuse is a criminal act regardless of where it occurs or to whom it occurs, and you have legal recourses to stop the abuse.

Source: fairchild.af.mil

If you're worried that your current situation is too volatile and dangerous, you need to get yourself and any children out of harm's way immediately.

If that's not possible and you're worried for your safety, call 911.

If you are a child who is the victim of physical abuse or you know a child who is exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety or fear and has unexplained bruises, abuse may be present. Any suspicions should immediately be reported to someone of authority (this can be the police, a doctor, child services etc.) so they can investigate the matter. Reports can be done anonymously. No child should have to grow up in a physically abusive environment and it's better to be safe than sorry. If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

Getting away from your abuser is the hardest step when it comes to any type of abuse. Because the abuser is typically someone we love and trust, it can be difficult to acknowledge abuse and find the strength to leave that situation. But once you've done that you can begin to regain control of your life and can begin the process of healing.

Victims (man, woman or child) have a tendency to blame themselves for the abuse, they somehow feel they brought it upon themselves or deserved it.

That is not the case. You are not at fault or to blame for the actions of your abuser.

Licensed counselors are always available at BetterHelp.com for online counseling at your convenience. The road to freedom from abuse is not always smooth, but with the right help, you can find your way.

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