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What is Physical Abuse?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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Physical abuse is abuse characterized by bodily contact that is designed to inflict pain and suffering on the victim. It can be accompanied with other forms of abuse like psychological abuse and may be seen in a wide variety of settings, ranging from intimate relationships to the schoolyard. Identifying physical abuse can be challenging, as the victim may come up with excuses or reasons for patterns of injuries, as well as attempting to conceal signs of abuse.

This form of abuse can manifest in a wide variety of ways. People may punch, hit, kick, slap, or pinch, and can also use weapons to inflict greater injuries on their victims. Some abusive individuals use tactics designed to conceal signs of physical abuse, such as injuring parts of the body that are not commonly on display, mimicking natural injuries, or coercing their victims into concealing injuries or lying about the nature of injuries on their bodies.

People subjected to physical abuse can experience a number of physical complications. Severe abuse can result in hearing and vision loss, damage to internal organs, hemorrhage, traumatic brain injuries, and other serious damage. In addition, many victims experience psychological stress and this can lead to psychological distress, loss of appetite, and other symptoms. Some victims of abuse also become abusive themselves.

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Signs that someone is experiencing physical abuse can be variable. Some people have obvious physical injuries and may have gaps in their explanations for those injuries. Other individuals experience behavioral changes like depression or aggression, or exhibit signs of fear and nervousness around their abusers. Physical abuse can also lead to difficulty concentrating on work or school, social withdrawal, and other lifestyle changes that may be out of character for the victim.

Law enforcement officers, social workers, child welfare advocates, teachers, and many other public employees are trained to recognize physical abuse and to intervene to provide assistance. Spotting abuse can be complicated by denial and providing assistance can be challenging. Some people trapped in abusive relationships and power dynamics may feel intimidated and be afraid of taking action, fearing reprisals if they report the violence or attempt to escape. Intervention programs designed to help victims of abuse must be broad in scope to provide appropriate and timely assistance.

Many nations have laws specifically forbidding physical abuse. Unwanted physical contact is considered assault and people can be prosecuted for this. Individuals in abusive relationships can request protective orders and other services to limit contact with their abusers, and community outreach programs provide resources like relocation assistance and community monitoring to address abusive relationships.

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