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Alternative NamesBattered child syndrome; Physical abuse - children
Definition Return to top
Physical child abuse or non-accidental child trauma refers to fractures and other signs of injury that occur when a child is hit in anger.
The physical signs of child abuse used to be called battered child syndrome. This syndrome referred to many fractures that occurred at different times in children too young to have received them from an accident. The definition of child abuse has since been expanded.
Causes Return to top
Physical abuse tends to occur at moments of great stress. Many people who commit physical abuse were abused themselves as children. As a result, they often do not realize that abuse is not appropriate discipline.
Often people who commit physical abuse also have poor impulse control. This prevents them from thinking about what happens as a result of their actions.
The rate of child abuse is fairly high. The most common form is neglect.
The major risk factors for child abuse include:
However, it is important to note that cases of child abuse are found in every racial or ethnic background and social class. It is impossible to tell abusers from non-abusers by looking at their appearance or background.
Symptoms Return to top
An adult may bring an injured child to an emergency room with a strange explanation of the cause of the injury. The child's injury may not be recent.
Exams and Tests Return to top
Typical injuries in abused children include:
The following tests can reveal physical injuries:
The following medical conditions have symptoms similar to those of physical abuse:
Treatment Return to top
The physical injuries are treated as appropriate.
The parents will need counseling or an intervention of some type. In some cases, the child may be temporarily or permanently removed from the home to prevent further danger. Life-threatening abuse, or abuse resulting in permanent damage to the infant or child may result in legal action.
Counseling, including play therapy, is also necessary for abused children over age 2. The child will need help dealing with the fear and pain of abuse caused by adults, who should be trusted figures. Failing to get this help can lead to significant psychological problems, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The appropriate government agency usually makes decisions about placing the child with an outside caregiver or returning the child to the home. This is typically done through the court system. The structure of these agencies varies from state to state.
Support Groups Return to top
Support groups are available for survivors of abuse and for abusive parents who want to get help. See the resource page for contact information.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
The child's physical recovery depends on the severity of the injuries. Psychological recovery depends on the results of therapy, and whether the child can develop trusting relationships with adult caregivers.
The authorities will determine whether the abuser gets psychiatric help, such as parenting training and impulse/anger management training.
Child protection agencies generally make every effort to reunite families when possible.
Possible Complications Return to top
Because adults are so much stronger and bigger than children, an abused child can be severely injured or killed by accident. Physical abuse of a child can lead to severe brain damage, disfigurement, blindness, crippling, and death. Abused individuals may carry emotional scars for a lifetime.
Children can be permanently removed from the parents' custody if the parents are abusive enough. However, this experience can also cause the child psychological problems. The child may feel rejected, or the placement may not lead to a strong, long-term attachment to the new caregivers.
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
All states require that you report any known or suspected child abuse. Call your health care provider, Child Protective Services, or local police if you suspect or know that someone is being abused.
Prevention Return to top
Recognize the warning signs of abuse. The caregiver may:
Counseling or parenting classes may prevent abuse when any of these factors are present. Watchful guidance and support from the extended family, friends, clergy, or other supportive persons may prevent abuse or allow early intervention in cases of abuse.
References Return to top
Johnson CF. Abuse and neglect of children. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 36.Update Date: 3/14/2009 Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.