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Research – Child Physical Abuse


It is easy to assume that children’s injuries come from horseplay, sports games, or at worst bullying. There are other, more terrible, possibilities. Sometimes the injuries are the result of abuse from a parent or caregiver. These individuals are not as easy to run away from as a bully and this type of abuse is particularly harmful because it has emotional as well as physical impacts. Parents and caregivers should be the ones that children run to when they are hurt or bullied but, for too many children, mom or dad are the bullies.


The World Health Organization provides the following definition for child physical abuse:

“Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction or lack of an interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or person in a position of responsibility, power or trust. There may be a single or repeated incidents.”

The Canadian Department of Justice expands the W.H.O definition a little farther:

“Physical abuse may consist of just one incident or it may happen repeatedly. It involves deliberately using force against a child in such a way that the child is either injured or is at risk of being injured. Physical abuse includes beating, hitting, shaking, pushing, choking, biting, burning, kicking or assaulting a child with a weapon. It also includes holding a child under water, or any other dangerous or harmful use of force or restraint. Female genital mutilation is another form of physical abuse.”

Child Abuse and the Law

In 1991 Canada signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention lays out the basic rights of children including the right to protection from harmful influences, abuse, and exploitation. By ratifying this convention, Canada has promised to protect and ensure children’s rights as they are laid out in the convention. Canada has taken a number of steps to help better prevent child physical abuse. Provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, IRPA, the Canadian Criminal Code, and provincial and territorial child welfare legislation all aim to better protect victims and apprehend and punish abusers.

Although the Criminal Code indicates that assaulting (punching, hitting, kicking, slapping) an individual is a crime, there is another section of the Criminal Code that provides an exception. Section 43 of the Criminal Code, also known as the ‘spanking section’ states that:

Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.

Section 43 is limited to certain circumstances in which reasonable force may be used when it is connected to the guardian’s duties to the child. Section 43 cannot be used as a defence.

Section 43 has caused a fair amount of controversy but in 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled to keep it in the Criminal Code, claiming that if they took it out there would be too many cases of alleged assault. However, the Supreme Court did amend the section: Force can only be used if the child is between the ages of 2 and 12 and the force used must be minimal despite the child’s actions. The use of force must not be degrading, inhumane, or harmful, must not involve an object such as a ruler, and may not hit the child’s head.

Identiyfing Physical Abuse

Recognizing and identifying the signs is the first step towards eliminating child physical abuse. The following lists are some common signs of child abuse. If you know of a child with some of these injuries, report it to the authorities. It is our job, as members of society, to help and protect other society members, especially when they are children and unable to defend themselves.

  • On the posterior side of the body
  • On the face, lips or mouth
  • In clusters that form regular patterns, or reflect the shape of the instrument used to inflict them (electrical cord, board, belt buckle)
  • On an infant, usually on the face
  • Human bite marks
  • Immersion or wet burns, such as “stocking burns” or doughnut shaped burns on the buttocks
  • Cigarette or cigar burns, especially on the palms of hands, soles of feet, or genitals
  • Rope burns, possibly from confinement
  • Patterned or dry burns which show a clearly defined mark such as those caused by an iron
Lacerations and Abrasions
  • On lips, eyes, or any portion of an infant's face
  • Of gum tissue, caused by forced feeding
  • On external genitals
  • On back of arms, legs, torso
Teeth and Bones
  • Teeth are missing or loose too early in the child's development
  • Skeletal Injuries (Medical Diagnosis)
  • Metaphysical or corner fractures of long bones, caused by twisting or pulling
  • Epiphysical separation - separation of the growth centre at the end of the bone from the rest of the shaft, caused by twisting or pulling
  • Periosteal elevation - detachment of periosteum from shaft of bone with associated haemorrhaging
  • Spiral fractures
  • Stiff, swollen, enlarged joints
Head Injuries
  • Absence of hair
  • Hemorrhaging beneath scalp, caused by pulling hair
  • Subdural hematomas, caused by hitting or shaking
  • Retinal haemorrhages or detachment, caused by shaking
  • Nasal, skull, or jaw fracture
Internal Injuries (Medical Diagnosis)
  • Duodenal or jejunal hematomas, caused by hitting or kicking
  • Rupture of inferior vena cava
  • Peritonitis, which can be caused by hitting or kicking
  • Constant vomiting
Behavioural Indicators of Physical Abuse
  • Overly compliant, passive - fearful of physical contact
  • Sporadic temper tantrums
  • Craves attention
  • Wears long sleeves or other concealing clothing even in hot weather
  • Reports injury by a parent or caregiver
  • Appears frightened of parent(s) or caregiver(s)
  • Demonstrates extremes in behaviour - overly aggressive or very withdrawn
  • Inappropriate neatness while playing or eating
  • Unable to offer reasonable explanation for injury
  • Lack of distress at being separated from parent(s) or caregiver(s)
  • Is often sleepy in class
  • Arrives early for school, stays late
  • Complains that physical activity causes pain or discomfort
  • Excessive school absence and/or tardiness
  • Overly cautious, lacks curiosity

Common Characteristics of the Abuser and the Victim

There are no discriminating factors or specific situations in which child abuse occurs. It knows no boundaries and can occur in any family. Anyone can become abusive and, equally so, everyone can fall victim to that abuse. The following is a list of characteristics and behaviours that are commonly found in abusive parents or caregivers:

  • Misuse of alcohol or other drugs
  • Social isolation of the family
  • Poor emotional control
  • Unaware of age appropriate behaviour of children
  • Emotional immaturity
  • Poor self-concept
  • Unrealistic behavioural expectations
  • Marital disharmony
  • Indifferent parental attitude
  • Absence of parenting skills/knowledge
  • Inappropriate or excessive discipline
  • Parental history of abuse/neglect
  • Overreaction or under-reaction to situations
  • Inability to trust others
  • Low self esteem
  • Overly critical of child, views child as evil
  • Unable to offer reasonable explanation for child's injury
  • Perceives child as “difficult” or “different”
  • Rigidity and compulsiveness
  • Expects rejection and criticism
  • Unable to express emotions in socially acceptable fashion
  • Loss of control or fear of losing control
  • Inability to offer or accept emotional support

Similarly, there are some common characteristics found among abused children. The following list some of the factors that seem to coincide with physical abuse:

Physiological Problems
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Congenital defects
  • Handicaps
  • Delayed or retarded development
  • Learning difficulties
  • Hyperactivity
  • Chronic illness
  • Colic
Behavioural Difficulties
  • Aggression
  • Oppositional
  • Irritating behaviours (e.g., whining, swearing)
  • Dependency
  • Tantrums
  • Running away
  • Bedwetting, soiling
Emotional Difficulties
  • Withdrawn
  • Passive
  • Problems with communication
  • Different temperament from parent
  • Child may resemble someone with whom the parent has had a poor relationship or remind the parent of a part of themselves they do not like.


The effects of child physical abuse are different for every child and depend on the following factors:

  • Severity of the abuse: both physically and emotionally
  • Frequency of the abuse: generally, the more often it occurs, the greater impact on the child
  • Age of the child at the time of abuse: the younger the child the greater the impact, mainly because the abuse then tends to last longer.
  • Child’s relationship to the abuser: If the child is close to the abuser, there is a great sense of betrayal.
  • Child’s ability to cope: The child may try to cover their hurt by being outgoing or ‘the class clown’, the child may also internalize or externalize their emotions and either become withdrawn or act out for no apparent reason.
  • Availability of support persons: If there is no one to turn to the child feels abandoned.

Child physical abuse can affect many different aspects of the child’s life, both at the time of the abuse and long-term. The consequences may be physical, psychological, behavioural, academic, sexual, interpersonal, self-perceptional, or spiritual. Effects may also differ depending on the nature of the case; was it solved and was the abuser apprehended or does it remain hidden? In the most serious cases, some of these effects may be fatal.

Gender also plays a role in the effects of physical abuse. Girls tend to internalize, and are more prone to low self esteem, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, or other psychological disorders. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to externalize by becoming more aggressive and violent towards others. Studies have shown that boys who experienced abuse at a young age are more likely to be violent in both adolescence and adulthood than those who did not experience violence at a young age.


There is limited data as to how widespread child physical abuse is in Canada; many cases are never reported. Sometimes the child is too young to be able to go to anyone for help, other times the children may have been coerced or threatened by the abuser and are too afraid. As for witnesses, they may not believe the abuse is serious enough, or believe that is even abuse at all. Other times, people just do not want to get involved in other people’s business. If child abuse is to be eliminated, however, then the public needs to step up and be more aware of what is going on around them. If an individual sees the signs and suspects that a child is a victim of physical abuse, then the authorities need to be notified. The Canadian government has strengthened the laws and legislation regarding child abuse, creating child-specific offences in the Criminal Code and ensuring that sentencing provisions are appropriate to better protect children.

Other strategies to help prevent child physical abuse include:

  • Education: Educating children of their rights and educating the public about child abuse, how to recognize the signs, and how to prevent and report it.
  • Professional Development and Resources: Providing specialized training to the professionals that may come into contact with abused children, teachers, judges, police, lawyers, child-care workers, etc.
  • Support: Strong support services help the victims and treatment programs for the abusers help both the victim and the abuser to get their lives back on track.
  • Research/Data/Information Sharing: National research regarding types of child abuse, frequency, and support services will help to better combat child physical abuse and support the victims.


Child physical abuse statistics may be limited, but there is no doubt that it exists in our society. Child physical abuse is an abuse of power. A parent or caregiver’s responsibility is to care for and protect children, not to harm and abuse them.

The government has made changes to, and is continuing to improve, Canadian legislation concerning child abuse in the hopes that more abusers are apprehended and punished and more children are protected and supported. However, no child can get help if the abuse is not reported. As the children are often too young and incapable to protect themselves it is our duty to be aware of the signs and, if we recognize that a child is a victim of physical abuse, it is up to us to protect and help them by informing local authorities.


Canadian Children’s Rights council. “Child Abuse and Neglect-Canada Statistics” http://www.canadiancrc.com/Child_Abuse/Child_Abuse.aspx

Canadian Criminal Code, 2009.

Child Abuse Effects “Physical Child Abuse Effects”. Updated 2011. http://www.child-abuse-effects.com/physical-child-abuse-effects.html

Coalition for Children. “Physical Abuse.” Updated 2010. http://www.safechild.org/childabuse2.htm

Department of Justice. “Child Abuse: A Fact Sheet from the Government of Canada.” Family Violence Initiative. Updated 2011. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/fv-vf/facts-info/child-enf.html

Department of Justice. “The Criminal And and Managing Children’s Behaviour.” Family Violence Initiative. Updated 2009. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/fv-vf/facts-info/mcb-cce.html

Helpguide. “Child Abuse and Neglect.” Updated 2010. http://helpguide.org/mental/child_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm

UNICEF. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” http://www.unicef.org/crc/

World Health Organization. “World Health Organization Definition of Child Abuse.” Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention Geneva, 1991. http://www.yesican.org/definitions/WHO.html

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Last updated: 2011-03-15

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