What Is Physical Abuse And How Do You Identify A Victim?
Updated November 13, 2019
Reviewer Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH
If we want to end physical abuse, we need to understand what it is, and we need to learn how to identify victims. Physical abuse is any deliberate act of force against another person that results in physical harm, injury, or trauma. It may have serious consequences that affect the wellbeing of the victim, and in some cases, it can lead to death. In general, it's a tool or a control tactic that someone uses to gain control over another.
The effects of physical abuse can be both acute (short-term) and chronic (lasting for a long period of time). Unfortunately, physical abuse is far-reaching, affecting friends and/or loved ones of both the victim and abuser.
Although physical abuse rates are alarming, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 79 percent of at-risk individuals either avoid or escape abuse with professional intervention. In fact, since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, intimate partner physical abuse has declined by 67 percent. Recognizing warning signs of physical abuse and knowing if you or someone else is at risk are important ways to facilitate early intervention and recovery.
While some types of abuse (such as verbal abuse) may occur independently, physical abuse is usually coupled with at least one other type of abuse. Signs of physical abuse may be obvious like bruises or broken bones. Other signs are more subtle, and unfortunately, they're easy to overlook. This is especially true when individuals are unsure of the warning signs associated with abuse.
Physical Symptoms of Abuse
There are several warning signs associated with abuse. The outward, visible signs are usually the first indication that someone is a victim. These signs include:
- Bruises (especially if the victim seems vague about how the bruising occurred). The most obvious bruises are black eyes or bruised cheek bones. However, bruising may occur on any part of the body.
- Broken bones. Victims of physical abuse who experience broken bones may have a history of more than one broken bone. X-rays will likely show fractures or breaks in various stages of healing.
- Burns. Most of the time, when people think of a burn associated with physical abuse, they think of cigarette burns. This is a common type of physical abuse. However, other types of burns may indicate abuse as well. For instance, an infant or young child may experience severe burns or blisters from being submerged in scalding bath water. Grease burns that cover a large area of the body, especially on a person who is too young or unable to cook, are also common.
- Head injuries. A common sign of physical abuse is a concussion. While not all concussions are related to abuse, if a victim is evasive about the way a head injury occurred or must be treated more than once for a similar injury, this could be a warning sign of abuse.
Emotional Symptoms Related to Physical Abuse
As mentioned before, physical abuse often occurs in the presence of other forms of abuse. The emotional effects of abuse can be overwhelming and even debilitating, so recognizing the warning signs is crucial. Abusers usually begin with emotional or mental abuse before their behavior escalates to harmful physical contact. Abuse victims often feel that they "deserve it" or that, if they can "be better," perhaps their abuser wouldn't harm them. While this is far from the truth, the roots of this thinking run deep.Some emotional symptoms of physical abuse include, but are not limited to:
- Anxiety (especially in the presence of the abuser). Young children may appear more dependent, clinging to a parent or another adult who makes them feel safe.
- Disturbed eating habits. Victims of abuse may experience loss of appetite and begin to lose weight. Others may be "emotional eaters" who may binge eat and experience weight gain as a way of coping.
- Nightmares or altered sleeping patterns.
- Depression. It is important to note that even small children can experience depression. Any deviation from normal emotional responses is a symptom that should not be ignored.
- Behavioral changes. Victims of abuse may exhibit changes in behavior, such as aggression or hostility. They may also become withdrawn and lose interest in things they used to enjoy.
- Bed-wetting (in children).
- Suicidal thoughts or tendencies. When abuse becomes unbearable, victims may feel that the only way to escape is to commit suicide. Suicidal thoughts should never be dismissed!
Physical abuse is non-discriminatory and affects individuals regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and socio-economic backgrounds. Although these descriptors cannot tell us who will be abused or who will become an abuser, they are indicators of who may be at risk of being affected by abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been victims of severe physical violence in their lifetime.
Risk Factors for Physical Abuse
- Individuals who have a physical or mental disability. The strain associated with caring for someone with a disability may lead to increased anxiety and aggression by a caregiver. In addition, a person with a disability may be unable to defend him or herself or to ask for help, which puts him or her at a disadvantage.
- Substance abuse. People who abuse drugs or alcohol may find themselves in relationships with people who are aggressive or abusive. The victim's need for acceptance and to support their addiction may put them in a vulnerable state. Individuals with a history of substance abuse may become violent under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Low-income households. Financial difficulties often cause stress and anxiety. If an individual is not capable of managing these emotions, outbursts of anger or aggression may occur, resulting in physical abuse. This is not to say that all low-income households will have incidents of physical abuse. It may, however, be a risk factor.
- Previous history of abuse. While not all victims of prior abuse become abusers, without intervention the risk appears to be higher than it is for those who have not been victims. Many individuals who experienced abuse as children often fall victim to abuse later in life.
- Culture. Although there is more awareness about abuse today than in times past, there are still some cultural factors that may increase the chances of someone being abused. Many women are taught that their husband (or significant other) is the leader of the home and therefore has a right to discipline or correct family members as he pleases. These women often feel that it's inappropriate to report abuse or to question their abusers' actions.
People suffering from physical abuse often feel like there is no way out. This is not true. Whether abuse is ongoing or has occurred only once, it is imperative to seek help immediately. Getting help means putting an end to what can otherwise become a vicious cycle.
If you or someone you know has been physically abused and is injured, seek immediate medical attention. If your injury is severe, go to the nearest emergency room or call 9-1-1. Remember, healthcare providers are there to help and protect you. They can provide care for your immediate injury and can offer you references to resources for long-term help. For those who have been physically abused, but do not require immediate medical attention, there are additional resources:
- For abuse involving gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people, the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline can offer assistance. The number is 1-888-THE-GLNH (1-888-849-4564).
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7899).
- For victims who experience physical and sexual abuse, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network offers help. Call 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673).
While no one can compel you to do so, if you decide to file a police report, the above agencies assist you.
WomensLaw.org also offers help and referrals to victims of abuse. They list shelters and support groups in addition to offering crisis counseling and safety planning assistance. When you visit this website, you can choose your state from a dropdown box to discover resources in your area.
The Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence focuses on policies and training for lawyers who represent victims of violence. The Commission partners with the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies across the country to share knowledge with those who represent victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
Victims of abuse often feel ashamed and overwhelmed by their situation. Many times, this stops them from seeking help from a therapist. However, tapping into the right resources can be crucial to their recovery. When traveling to meet a counselor or therapist in person feels difficult or is not an option, there is an alternative. BetterHelp is an online platform that offers a convenient way to find and work with a trained therapist. For more information about how online counseling may benefit you or a loved one, see the reviews of BetterHelp counselors below, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gaining skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is, it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!"
"Billie is wonderful. She's kind, responsive, caring, validating - everything I could ever hope for in a therapist. I came from a very abusive, traumatic childhood that still influences who I am, and Billie is helping me undo that damage. She answers me every day, responds to everything I write to her, and always answers my questions. When I get stuck, she nudges me forward with gentle suggestions that I can use or not. She's respectful and gentle always! I feel like I'm making so much progress with her, and I feel so, so, so lucky to have her!"
In a world full of uncertainties, one thing is certain--you are not alone. If you or a loved one has been affected by physical abuse, there is help available to you. You can get support from an online therapist today. Take the first step.