Physical abuse

Physical abuse of a child or young person is the causing of physical harm to a child or young person.

This may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning or suffocating.

Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer feigns the symptoms of, or deliberately causes, ill health to a child they are looking after (Fabricated or Induced Illness).

Physical abuse damages children both physically and emotionally. The longer physical abuse of a child continues, the more serious the consequences. The initial effects of physical abuse can be painful and emotionally traumatic for a child.

The long-term consequences of physical abuse may continue to impact on the child into adulthood.

The first effects of physical abuse occur during or immediately following the abuse, the child may suffer physical pain or related medical problems as a result the injuries they sustain, and in some severe cases, this can result in death.

The extent and longevity of the abuse and the age of the child when the abuse occurs, recognising very young children are at their most vulnerable, influences the long-term physical and emotional impact of the abuse.

This is due to the small physical stature, soft bone structure and developing brain of very young children. For example, neurological damage can manifest as irritability, lethargy and vomiting.

In more severe cases, the effects of physical abuse can include seizures, blindness or deafness, and developmental delay.

The emotional effects of physical abuse can be far reaching and continue long after the child or young person’s physical wounds have healed.

Numerous research studies have revealed that a number of psychological problems can develop due to physical abuse in childhood, and these include issues around emotional regulation, depression, low self-esteem, sleep issues, inability to concentrate, and difficulties making and sustaining interpersonal relationships.

Key resources

Guidance Resource Icon

National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2023

Year: 2023 | Topic: Active implementation | Author: The Scottish Government
The Scottish Government has updated National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland which was published in 2021.

Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill

Year: 2019 | Topic: Physical abuse | Author: Scottish Government
This is a Member’s Bill, introduced by John Finnie MSP. The Bill aims to stop the physical punishment of children by parents and others looki…
Consultations Resource IconPractice paper Resource Icon

Response to Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill consultation

Year: 2019 | Topic: Child protection, Health and Wellbeing, Legislation, Physical abuse | Author: Lizzie Morton
A response to the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill proposed by John Finnie MSP, which aims to remove the legal defenc…
Report Resource Icon

Equally Protected?

Year: 2015 | Topic: Child protection, Corporate parenting, Health and Wellbeing, Local authority, Looked after at home, Physical abuse | Author: Dr Anja Heilmann, Prof. Yvonne Kelly, Prof. Richard G Watt
A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children.