- Childhood trauma: Lifelong consequences of adverse childhood experiences
- Emotional abuse in children: An invisible problem that lasts into adulthood
- Physical abuse of children: The long term effects that never go away
- Child sexual abuse: Long term effects and how to protect your child
- Children of incarcerated parents pay the price of their crime forever
- Divorced parents: Long term effects of divorce on children
- Children who witness domestic violence: What happens when they grow up?
- Growing up with addicted parents and the adult children of addicts
- Growing up with a parent with mental illness: The lifelong impact
- Physical neglect: Lasting consequences of growing up hungry, cold, unhealthy, and unsafe
- Emotionally neglectful parents: How they harm their children in adulthood
- Adverse childhood experiences: 5 protective factors that build resilience in children
- What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing: Book Review
Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines the need for protective measures to ensure that children are safe from all forms of physical and mental violence. Physical abuse is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as being any form of physical ill-treatment that results in “actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.”
Further to this, the WHO has recently revealed that it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged between 2 and 17 years old have experienced some kind of violence in the past year alone. With our total world population sitting at 7.8 billion people, this statistic is simply staggering.
Given the high prevalence of children being exposed to violence across the globe, it is natural to wonder about the impact that this is having on children and adolescents, both short and long term. As a current foster parent, I am particularly concerned about the high numbers of children who are living in homes where physical abuse is occurring. One of the primary reasons why a child might be removed from their biological parents is due to the presence of domestic violence within families where one or both parents are physically abusive.
So what happens when a child experiences physical abuse? Their brain is literally changed by the biological responses that are built into our DNA to ensure survival. Our body will react in a way that is out of our control and these responses are known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
The fight, flight, or freeze response
We have all had experiences that have resulted in an uncontrolled physiological response. You might notice that your hands begin to shake and your heart rate increases before having to engage in public speaking. You might notice a sudden surge in energy as your body is pumped with adrenaline after a thrill-seeking ride at an amusement park. We have also heard stories of people who experience a sudden surge of strength, like a father who is able to lift a very heavy object off of their trapped child.
These are all perfectly normal responses that occur when our brain perceives a threat and takes action to protect us. Our body is preparing to either stay and “fight” or get ready to flee the danger (“flight”). In some circumstances, a person will “freeze” and possibly disassociate from what is happening. This is what often occurs when a person is unable to either fight or flee. For children who are being physically abused by someone bigger, stronger, and faster, the freeze response is an important reaction for survival.
The fight, flight, and freeze responses are very good at doing their job of protecting us. However, when these responses are repeatedly activated the brain begins to rely on them for survival and might stay switched on to keep the person in a state of high alert. This state can cause a person to be more easily triggered and they might begin to give a fear-based response at times when there is no real threat.
Children who have experienced trauma can display a wide range of challenging and complex behaviors and these can often be a result of their brain remaining in this state of high alert. For some children, a perceived threat can cause an aggressive response and I have certainly seen this before in many foster children.
I once had a 5-year-old child in my care who would spit and bite when she was told the word “no” as that particular word was one that triggered her fight response. While these biological responses are inbuilt for survival, remaining in a constant state of high alert is certainly not good for the brain–yet this is what happens when children are exposed to physically abusive environments.
The effects of domestic violence on children
Domestic and family violence can include physical, emotional, and financial abuse as well as intimidating behavior. While this commonly involves spousal abuse, children who live in homes where there is domestic violence are at a much higher risk of being physically abused. Unfortunately, this can also take the shape of sibling-to-sibling abuse when the children in a home enact the violent behaviors they have learned from the adults.
When domestic or family violence is occurring within a home, the environment becomes unsafe for the child. Children have an innate need to feel secure and safe so when physical abuse is a part of their lives, children experience a whole range of confusing emotions that are compounded by the unpredictability-never knowing exactly when the violence might occur is bound to cause very high levels of fear, stress, and anxiety. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be for a child to live in a home where a violent outburst could occur at any moment and so it is unsurprising that domestic and family violence can have a significant and long-term impact on children.
Domestic and family violence can be a threat to a child from the moment they are conceived. In a home where a person is physically abusive, an unborn baby is at risk of harm when their mother is being pushed, hit, or kicked by their abuser. For a baby that is born into an abusive home, it will not take long before their brain is wired for survival and their fight, flight, or freeze response is repeatedly activated and they begin to display the tell-tale signs of a child who has experienced trauma.
The impact of physical abuse on the brain
We have already touched on the brain and its biological response to perceived threats, but there is also a myriad of other ways that physical abuse impacts a child’s developing brain.
The brain is a remarkable organ that develops quickly through childhood, as new neurological pathways are formed. Child abuse and neglect have been proven to cause brain damage and prevent areas of the brain from developing or functioning properly as the child grows. Traumatic experiences are known to re-wire the brain and place it in “survival mode” so that learning and social functioning are certainly impeded.
The amygdala is the area of the brain that is responsible for processing emotions and this is the part of the brain that goes to work overtime during the flight, flight, or freeze response. You may have heard of the saying, “You are thinking with your amygdala instead of your prefrontal cortex.” This basically means that you aren’t able to think clearly as the amygdala has taken over the thinking part of the brain.
Has your brain ever gone blank when you were asked a question in a room full of people? Even though you might know the answer, you can’t seem to find it? This is because you are feeling a panic response and your amygdala is highly active.
The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is central to learning and memory and the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for our reinforcement-based decision making. These areas are not able to function properly when a child is in a constant state of high alert and over time can become underdeveloped or damaged. This is where we see children experiencing difficulties concentrating at school and they often learn more slowly than their peers.
Fortunately, research has indicated that it might be possible for children’s brains to recover from these negative effects if they are provided with the right treatment and support. While this is positive, in my experience there is a significant lacking in the availability of physiological support–particularly for children. Global awareness of the increased need for these services is required to ensure early intervention and build more positive future prospects for children and young people who have experienced physical abuse and trauma.
Psychological impacts of physical abuse
Physical abuse in childhood can result in a variety of psychological issues that can have a damaging impact on a person that lasts into adulthood. Those that have experienced this kind of abuse can develop feelings of fear and distrust towards others, which can impact their ability to form and sustain positive relationships. This in itself can be devastating as all humans have an inbuilt desire to form connections with others.
Attachment disorders occur when an infant or very young child has not had their basic needs met by the adults in their lives. These disorders often develop when children live in homes where there are physically abusive parents. Attachment disorders can significantly impact how that person interacts with others and can make it difficult to form relationships with peers. It can also be especially problematic later in life when trying to develop positive romantic relationships and it is here that a cycle of abuse that impacts generation after generation is at a higher likelihood of occurring.
Children and adolescents who have experienced physical abuse are also more likely to experience difficulties at school and are at a higher risk for depression and low self-esteem. The damage that can occur to the brain through trauma might mean that a person has reduced executive functioning or reduced cognitive abilities. They might also have trouble exercising self-control and may lack empathy and understanding towards others. In addition to this, trauma in childhood increases the likelihood of anxiety and other psychiatric disorders throughout adulthood. All in all, victims of physical abuse are at significantly greater risk of poor mental and emotional health.
Behavioral impacts of physical abuse
Children who have experienced abuse in childhood are at increased risk of developing aggressive and hostile behaviors that can also lead to criminal behavior. We see this all the time within the judicial system. Courts are required to sentence people for criminal behavior and it is more common than not for these individuals to come with complex back-stories of having experienced violence, abuse, and neglect across their childhood and adolescent years. Unfortunately, they are also more likely to engage with drugs and alcohol and so the long-term prospects for a healthy and happy life are not so promising.
Children who have experienced physical abuse can also develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder. This disorder is characterized by a persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic events related to the abuse. They literally re-live their harrowing experiences on a daily basis and therefore can begin to avoid situations that might trigger memories or responses in relation to their trauma. In children, post-traumatic stress disorder can result in depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, or oppositional disorder or defiant behavior which will impact on success at school and within relationships.
Health and wellbeing implications for physical abuse victims
When a child or young person is physically abused, it is certainly possible that they might have injuries and scars which continue to affect their lives long after the abuse has stopped. While broken bones and bruises do heal, scars and physical pain can linger for a very long time and have a further impact on a person’s mental health. And let’s not avoid mention of the biggest possible risk that physical abuse can have on a child or young person–death. This is very real reality and we often hear about how child protection systems have let down individuals when a child dies as a result of ongoing physical abuse.
There is also a whole range of long-term health problems that can arise from having been exposed to adverse childhood experiences. Children who have been physically abused are at a much higher risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure. They are also more likely to have a cancer diagnosis and are at increased risk of stroke.
It is a very sad reality that children who have been physically abused are more likely to fail school and have trouble gaining long-term employment. This puts them at an increased likelihood of spending their lives living below the poverty line which then increases the likelihood of malnutrition and other associated diseases and disorders.
Signs of physical child abuse
Given the prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect, it is important that we are able to recognize the signs that might indicate all is not well in a child’s life so that we can take action to protect them. There are many signs of physical abuse and while we might overlook isolated indicators and incidents, patterns will often form over time. Becoming aware of what to look for will greatly improve our ability to recognize and respond in cases where physical abuse might be suspected.
Of course, there may be visible indicators of suspected physical abuse. Unexplained bruising, swelling, cuts, or abrasions could allude to something sinister in a child’s life. There could also be more severe signs such as burns, fractures, dislocations, or sprains. Bite marks as well as dental, ear, or eye injuries are other signs to be mindful of in cases where physical abuse could be occurring.
In addition to the physical indicators, there are also behavioral signs that might point to the possibility of physical abuse. Inappropriate or unclear explanations of how injuries have occurred, withdrawal, suicide attempts, and self-harming are all signs that are cause for concern. Any sudden changes in a child or young person’s mood, behavior, eating, or sleeping habits should be taken seriously to determine what might be going on in their lives to cause these changes.
As a foster parent, I have much engagement with children who have experienced trauma and been exposed to a wide range of negative situations. In that time I have noticed that children who have experienced physical abuse can exhibit violent behaviors that they have learned, but they can also exhibit less obvious signs that can easily be discounted.
I recall one child in particular who on the surface seemed to have no behavioral concerns or evidence of trauma. She presented as being extremely helpful at school and within our home and often seemed over-the-top in her attempts to be of service to adults. Over time we learned that she had experienced a physically abusive mother within her home environment and while she never demonstrated violence, her desperation to please the adults in her life was certainly an impact of those earlier traumatic experiences. Excessive compliance is another common but subtle sign of a child who has been exposed to physical violence.
What to do if you suspect abuse
If you have suspicions that a child is being physically abused it is important to act on them. It is normal to worry about getting involved in someone else’s business, but it’s important to remember that matters of child protection are everyone’s business. If we report our concerns and they turn out to be wrong, at least we will be able to rest easy in knowing that the child is safe and well.
Sometimes a child might disclose to a trusted adult that they are being abused. In these situations, it is important to stay calm and listen to what the child has to say. It is best not to display any kind of shock or panic and to use an even tone of voice. Reassure the child that they are doing the right thing by telling you what has happened and help them to feel as safe as they can during the conversation. It is also important that you don’t ask invasive questions that might make the child feel uncomfortable or leading questions that might influence their disclosure.
It is better to ask “what happened?” rather than “why?” and never pressure the child to reveal more than they want to. You might need to make some inquiries to determine what the immediate needs of the child are. However, once you have a reasonable belief that a child has been or is at risk of being physically abused, your concerns must be passed on to the appropriate authorities for investigation.
What to do if physical abuse is occurring in your home
The thought of telling anyone or seeking help can be more terrifying than the abuse itself. You might have very real concerns for your life and for the lives of your children and this is often a big factor that prevents people from reaching out for help. Thankfully, there are services that can be accessed to offer guidance and support, and sometimes the first step might be calling a helpline to access this support or disclosing the abuse to a trusted friend who can help connect you with relevant services in your area.
For victims of domestic violence, leaving an abusive relationship can be one of the hardest things to do, and often a parent makes this decision when they realize the impact that the abuse is having on their child. When preparing to leave, it is important to make a plan that includes where to go and who to contact for support. Sometimes this might start with a family shelter or a phone call to the police or child protection services. Either way, leaving an abusive home will firstly ensure that the child is safe, and secondly, it becomes a starting point for healing the damaging effects of being exposed to physical abuse.
There is also another kind of victim here who I have yet to mention. This is the abuser. Statistically, a very high number of people who are physically abusive towards others have a history of being abused themselves as a child. While this certainly does not justify violent actions, it can help us to understand that people who inflict physical abuse are often in need of help and support themselves. They might not have learned how to manage their emotions effectively and they may be repeating patterns of behavior that they learned from their parents. Support is also available in the form of counseling to help perpetrators understand why they behave the way that they do so that they can learn to identify their own triggers and take steps towards change.
The effects of physical abuse on children and young people can be damaging and long-lasting. Exposure to violence will literally change the way the brain functions and impact almost every aspect of that person’s life as they grow up. Health and wellbeing can suffer significantly, as can the potential for positive relationships despite our innate need for human connection. The statistics that show the prevalence of violence against children globally is utterly shameful.
We have a direct responsibility to protect our most vulnerable members of society so please help fight the war against abuse of children by learning how to recognize the signs of abuse and by acting on any suspicions you might have. Don’t stay silent. Our children deserve much better. Advocate against abuse and become a voice for those who are unable to speak for themselves.