Physical Abuse

What is physical abuse?

In essence, physical abuse occurs when one person causes intentional bodily harm to another person.

Physical attacks are often the result of someone trying to intimidate or demonstrate their power over someone else. As such, the victims of physical abuse are often viewed as inferior in some way to the abuser. Common targets of abuse are children, the elderly, women and those who are shy or very mild-mannered.

The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse describes physical abuse this way:

“Physical abuse is physical force or violence that results in bodily injury, pain, or impairment. It includes assault, battery, and inappropriate restraint.”

A person is considered abusive even if the physical attacks only occur occasionally. In many cases, it is merely the threat of violent repercussions that keep victims of abuse living in fear. Even though that type of intimidation is considered verbal or emotional abuse, it can still cause long-lasting harm and, of course, lead to periodic physical violence.

There is never any reason to justify being physically abused by someone else. Whether the person is a friend, family member or co-worker, if they are using tactics to dominate someone or otherwise cause physical harm, they are extremely out of line and should be stopped. Although one person cannot control someone else’s behavior, victims can and should remove themselves from an environment that becomes physically abusive.

If directly confronting an abuser or leaving a violent situation poses safety concerns, then it’s important to get outside help. This could be a trusted confidant or local law enforcement personnel who can step in to offer protection and referrals to resources that can help keep victims safe and out of the path of the abuser.

Abusers come in all different shapes and sizes and they don’t always fit into the likely profile of an abusive personality. A person might only allow themselves to “snap” in certain environments. This trait can aid in their being able to hide their violent tendencies from public view for quite some time.

There are, however, some other common traits that many abusers share which makes it much easier to understand, identify — and arrange extrication from — an abusive situation. Listed below are some of the most commonly reported abuse scenarios, how to recognize them and what the best course of action is to get help and support as quickly as possible.

Physical abuse symptoms

There are many, many symptoms that may indicate an abusive situation. From frequent angry outbursts to unexplained bruises, abusive environments make themselves known in a variety of ways. It is often the way abusers try to hide the signs of their abuse that set off the biggest red flags.

Although the signs of abuse may vary from person to person, there is a common thread that connects the victims and perpetrators in certain high-risk categories of abuse.


Children are especially vulnerable to physical abuse because they are typically smaller and weaker than their abusers. They can also easily be intimidated by threats because they are still learning the difference between right and wrong and what is or isn’t acceptable behavior. If they are told by an adult that physical abuse is normal or that they deserve it, they are likely to believe it.

Tell-tale signs of a child being abused include:

  • Frequent bruises and/or limb sprains/breaks
  • Frequent unexplained absences from school
  • Stories about the bruises or absences that differ between the child and their parents or caregivers
  • Burns on the skin
  • Frequent trips to the hospital or hospital stays
  • Hidden injuries

The elderly

Elder abuse may be one of the easiest forms of physical abuse to perpetrate because of the general frailty of seniors. People who inflict physical harm on the elderly are often close friends or relatives who have been charged with caring for them.

Many of these situations go unreported because the caregiver has total control over the where the elderly person goes and who they communicate with. And because of the senior’s weakened state, abusers can more easily restrict their movements or tell plausible lies about why their elderly relative is rarely seen or is often ill. Although all abusive situations are an abhorrence, elders are probably in the gravest danger because of their age and susceptibility to injury and conditions that are common in advanced age, such as heart attacks and strokes.

Signs that elder abuse may be present include:

  • Extreme hair loss (which can be caused by stress/trauma)
  • Signs of traumatic tooth loss
  • “Wrap-around” bruises on arms or legs which may indicate an elderly person has been harshly restrained
  • Numerous hospitalizations
  • Bruises or injuries that don’t heal or that take a long time to heal
  • Conflicting stories from family members about how bruises or injuries have occurred


Spousal abuse can be extremely traumatic because of the emotional attachment of the victim to their abuser. Abuse may not even be recognized as such at first. If the victim has been previously abused by a parent or loved one, they may not categorize physical attacks as abuse because it is a behavior that is familiar to them.

They may even blame themselves and believe that they deserve the abuse. This kind of twisted rationalization is often encouraged by the abuser and they may impose strict “rules” that their victims must follow in order to avoid being physically punished. The catch is that rules frequently change or new ones are introduced without warning, so the victim generally has no reprieve and lives in fear of committing an infraction and suffering the consequences.

Common signs of spousal abuse include:

  • Deep depression
  • High anxiety or appearance of being “on edge” all the time
  • Flashbacks and recurring nightmares
  • Feeling the need to be isolated
  • Refusing help from family or friends because of fear it may lead to more abuse
  • Getting frequent phone calls at work from the abuser
  • Being publicly or privately humiliated, harassed and demeaned by the abuser
  • Being told what to wear and how to act by the abuser
  • Being denied financial support

Physical abuse causes

Unfortunately, there is a history in many cultures that encouraged the “disciplining” of women by their spouses. In the U.S., women were legally prevented from divorcing their husbands because of abuse until the late 1800s. This has undoubtedly led to a generation of males who believe that women are inferior to men and that they have the right to control them through whatever means necessary. As a consequence, children who grow up in an environment where there is spousal abuse may believe that such treatment is an acceptable and reasonable way to solve problems or conflicts in relationships.

Other reasons that an abuser may feel the need to inflict pain or dominate another are their own feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, low self-esteem, jealousy or bitterness about being on a lower economic or social level than their partners.

Physical abuse treatment

First and foremost, the victim’s physical safety needs to be taken into account and arranged for. This may require aggressive action from law enforcement authorities as well as the court system, which can issue restraining orders and provide referrals to social service agencies that specialize in assisting victims of abuse.

Both the perpetrators and victims of physical abuse are likely suffering deep levels of emotional trauma, whether they understand this or not. In both cases, behavioral and psychological therapy is not only recommended but critical to the healing process and to breaking the cycle of abuse.

In the case of victims of abuse, there may be physical injuries that need to be tended to immediately, but there is also the matter of healing the inner, emotional scars. This is a process that could take years and it requires patience, diligence, and a strong support system. There are many treatment programs available through social service agencies that can offer this type of support.

As far as the perpetrators of physical abuse, there is also help and resources to create a pathway to healing. Intervention programs can offer emotional and psychological counseling to abusers so that they better understand why they started abusing and how they can begin to make amends and gain control of their violent behaviors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is a good place to begin researching intervention programs and counseling centers.

Physical abuse prevention

As with many things, education is one of the most effective ways to prevent any type of physical abuse. Many abusers have been victims of abuse themselves and don’t have the emotional skills to recognize the depth of harm that their abuse causes. Local social service agencies are spearheading initiatives that establish ways to rehabilitate abusers instead of merely punishing them.

Hospitals can also work with community-based social service organizations to help create standard protocols for identifying, assessing, referring and following up with those they suspect of being abused.

One of the things to keep in mind is that dealing with someone who has been psychologically scarred by abuse can be a very difficult and delicate balancing act. That is why training in this area is so important.

Once an abusive situation has been absolutely identified and help has been secured for the victim, abusers should be encouraged to undergo intense counseling and their behavior should be closely monitored for the avoidance of certain activities.

During their recovery and journey to understanding the grave damage they have done, abusers should:

  • Remain in regular counseling and/or psychoanalysis
  • Take anger management classes
  • Stop using drugs and alcohol
  • Avoid stressful environments
  • Learn to recognize things that trigger their anger
  • Exercise and eat healthy foods
  • Keep a safe distance away from those they have abused

Physical abuse is a very complicated, multi-layered problem. There is never any good reason, other than self-defense, to inflict intentional, physical harm on another person. No one deserves to live in constant fear, which is what happens when a victim lives with, or comes in frequent contact with, an abuser.

Luckily, there is a much higher awareness today of the occurrence of physical abuse than there was just 20 or even 10 years ago. Many programs now exist to provide support for the victims as well as the abusers, although some may disagree about whether the abusers deserve any help. it’s important to recognize, though, that stopping the problem for good requires going straight to the source and cutting it off at the knees.

If the abusers can learn to acknowledge and modify their behavior, it’s much more likely that they may eventually serve as inspiration for others who are in the same situation to take steps toward ending their own cycle of abuse as well.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2017
Last Updated:
September 14, 2017
Content Source: