Physical abuse

Written by Katherine Nicholls

Katherine Nicholls

Counselling Directory Content Team

Content Creator and Strategist

Last updated on 25th September, 2018

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Physical abuse is when somebody causes physical harm to another person, intentionally. This can take many different forms and affect people of all ages. This form of abuse often coincides with other forms of abuse such as emotional abuse, financial abuse and sexual abuse. Physical violence is another way in which an abuser can exert their power over their victim.

Based on statistics, if a child is being abused, it’s more likely to be by their parent, caregiver or sibling. Adults are more likely to be abused by a partner (this is often called domestic abuse) and elderly adults are more likely to be abused by a caretaker.

On this page, we’ll look into what physical abuse can involve, what signs to look out for, the effects of physical abuse and how counselling can provide essential support.

What is physical abuse?

Any act that brings unwanted physical harm to someone can be called ‘physical abuse’ (it may also be referred to as assault). Many behaviours are therefore considered abusive. Here are some examples of these types of behaviours:

  • punching, kicking, slapping
  • physically restraining in a harmful way
  • beating, whipping
  • burning
  • poisoning (or other methods of causing illness)
  • shaking (especially of babies/small children)
  • involuntary isolation
  • misuse of medication (for example, over-sedation)
  • force-feeding or withholding food

The cycle of physical abuse

Abuse tends to have a pattern, and this is sometimes called the ‘cycle’ of abuse. An example of this would be:

  • The abuser threatens physical violence (“If you call them, you’ll be sorry”).
  • The physical abuse takes place.
  • The abuser apologises profusely and may become extra attentive.
  • The cycle begins again.

Of course, this is just one example. Not all cases will be the same. Often physical abuse comes from a desire for power, meaning those in our society with seemingly less power may be more at risk.

Who’s most at risk?

Anyone can become a victim of physical abuse, regardless of age or gender. Statistics have shown women to be more likely victims than males, however true statistics of abuse can be hard to uncover due to it often happening behind closed doors.

Other groups at risk of physical abuse include:

  • the elderly
  • those with physical disabilities
  • those with developmental disabilities
  • those with mental illnesses
  • substance abusers
  • intimate partners
  • children

Victims may feel shame and guilt over what is happening to them and therefore hide it from others. There is also a great deal of fear that can stop people from reaching out and, of course, sometimes the victims are unable to communicate what’s happening. Because of this, physical abuse can often go unreported.

If you are ready to reach out and tell someone what’s happening, Citizen’s Advice has a page with helpful numbers to call.

Physical abuse in children

Sadly, children and babies can be victims of physical abuse, usually at the hands of their parents, family members or other caregivers. There may be many reasons why an adult would physically hurt a child. They may have emotional or behavioural problems, they may have relationship or family issues. They may have been a victim of abuse themselves.

Regardless of the reasoning, it’s important to highlight that abuse is never OK and should never be excused.

Two types of child abuse you may see described are non-accidental head injuries (NAHI) and fabricated or induced illness (FII).

  • NAHI - Infants have much more fragile brains than adults, making them more prone to injury and even death if they are shaken violently or are struck on the head.
  • FII - This is when a caregiver or parent fakes or creates symptoms of illness in their child. This may involve giving the child medicine they don’t need, falsifying test results or tampering with medical equipment.

Spotting the signs of physical abuse

Being aware of the signs of physical abuse can help you recognise if it is happening to someone you know. Physical symptoms to look out for include frequent broken bones, chronic injuries and/or bruises, bite-marks, scarring etc.

There is rarely one physical sign that points to abuse, especially in children who may be prone to accidents. However, if you notice unnatural patterns, frequent injuries or the story doesn’t match up to the injury, it’s worth raising your concerns.

Of course, often, physical signs may not be visible. It’s helpful then to also be aware of the emotional/behavioural signs of physical abuse. These include:

He was very clever and never bruised me in the places people would see. My bruises were mostly on my waist, stomach and thighs.

- Read Lola's story.

The victim may struggle to explain their injuries, or their story may be inconsistent. You may notice as well that they fail to seek medical advice or seem to frequently change doctors.

Where to find support if you suspect abuse:

  • NSPCC (if you suspect child abuse)
  • Action on Elder Abuse (if you suspect elder abuse)
  • Refuge (if you suspect abuse against a woman)
  • ManKind (if you suspect abuse against a man)
  • Mencap (if you suspect someone with a learning disability is being abused)

Effects of abuse

As with other forms, physical abuse can have long-lasting effects on the victim. If someone is physically abused as a child, they are more likely to develop mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders.

Those who have experienced abuse may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have low self-esteem, or turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma. Personality issues and dissociation may also be seen as a result of trauma.

As abusers are often close to their victims (either parents, caregivers or partners) there can be conflicting emotions within the survivor. They may find it difficult to trust others and find it difficult to maintain relationships.

If you are living with the effects of physical abuse, counselling and talk therapy can be helpful.

Counselling for abuse

There can be many emotions and feelings that come from a history of abuse. Working with a mental health professional can help you explore your feelings in a safe environment. Counsellors can listen to you in a non-judgemental way, reflecting what you say and providing insights to help you understand what has/is happening to you.

While they won’t tell you what to do, they will be able to guide you through your feelings and help you recognise that what happened/is happening is not your fault.

I've been with my current counsellor for two years now. It has been tough but also rewarding to finally find a relationship that I feel safe in and I can allow myself to trust.

- Read Sylvia's story.

Counsellors can also address any conditions or concerns you may have developed following the abuse (such as PTSD or anxiety). Depending on your circumstances they can help you manage your condition and reduce its impact on your day-to-day life.

If you have PTSD, you may be recommended Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). This is a technique found to be useful in treating trauma.

Someone who has been the perpetrator of abuse can also seek support through therapy. Counselling may be ordered after jail time (or instead of jail time) as part of the rehabilitation process. Counselling in this circumstance would be aimed at reducing the abuser’s impulse to use violence and help prevent future violence.

This approach can only be effective, however, if the person honestly wants to change and may not be recommended for all of those who have been abusive.   

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

Whilst there are no official rules and regulations in position to stipulate what level of training and experience a counsellor dealing with physical abuse needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.

There are several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors that can improve their knowledge of a particular area. So, for peace of mind, you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in matters of physical abuse/domestic violence.

Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation that represents abuse counsellors.

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