Physical Abuse


Physical violence is a crime, regardless of the age of the target, their relationship to the perpetrator, or any other circumstances. However, it affects children differently than it affects adults. First, children are completely dependent on their abusers (legally, financially, physically, and psychologically); they can't divorce their parents and move out, which leaves them no option but to suffer the abuse until someone rescues them. Second, children aren't fully developed physically; their bodies are more fragile because they are still growing, so a light smack on the back of a head, which would be of no consequence to an adult, can cause traumatic brain injury and death to a child. And third, children aren't fully developed mentally; they can't form an accurate understanding of their situation, which results in serious psychological trauma and various maladjustments, sometimes life-long. Many perpetrators of child abuse take advantage of this, presenting their actions as a perfectly acceptable parenting technique, punishment for the child's misbehavior. This page might be hard to read, as some people subject their children to torture, as defined in The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, avoiding this topic doesn't work, because survivors of this type of abuse often end up unsure what to call their experience, whether it's OK to talk about it, and whether it ever happened to anyone else. Unfortunately, these things do happen; you can browse our Memorial Wall for specific stories.

Overt violence

Some households routinely use violence: dad beats up mom, mom beats up dad, both beat up children, children reciprocate, etc. In such circumstances the child might grow to believe that physical violence is normal, and only becomes a problem when it results in a permanent disfigurement - or even only when such disfigurement was the intended goal. In reality, physical violence is not OK regardless of intent, outcome, or circumstances; it's a crime, especially when directed at children. It's not OK to punch, kick, hit, or shake children, to drop them on the ground, slam them against walls, or cause them injuries in any other way.

Corporal punishment

Geneva Convention forbids corporal punishment of children. Most countries ratified it; USA is one of the few exceptions, so in some states corporal punishment of children is still legal. However, it's not a carte blanche for violence. First, corporal punishment cannot leave marks (or cause internal damage). Meaning, you can't spank your child to bruises or cuts. Second, the child needs to understand what they are being punished for, and have had the option to rectify the problem. For example, if your child refuses to clean their room, you need to warn them that you'll spank them unless they clean it, give them the opportunity to comply, and if they fail to do so - explain to them again that you're spanking them for refusal to clean their room. And third, corporal punishment cannot be excessive: you can't spank a child for every minor transgression. Many abusive parents claim to be punishing their children, but if the above criteria aren't met - what's happening is physical abuse, not corporal punishment.

Confinement and restraints

This is another form of physical abuse that's often disguised as a legitimate parenting technique. Appropriate timeout lasts one minute per year of the child's age, i.e. a 2yo gets a 2min timeout, while a 5yo gets a 5min timeout. During this time the child is told to stay in their room, but isn't physically restrained or locked in; for example, they can leave in case of fire. Appropriate restraint can be applied if the child is posing danger to self or others (e.g. biting other children or running into traffic), and is achieved via the parent holding the child in their arms for a minute or two. Locking children in closets, boxes, tubs, containers, refrigerators, dog cages, etc, or using duct tape, rope, string, handcuffs, zip ties, plastic bags, etc, to restrain them - is child abuse, regardless of circumstances.

Stress positions and excessive exercise

Physical activity helps children regulate their mood, so a lot of parents suggest their child to sit quietly and breathe through their nose for a few minutes (for example, during a temper tantrum), or to do a few pushups, (for example, if a child is hyperactive). The line is crossed when these activities are causing pain, discomfort, or injury, or when they serve as a punishment for past behavior. For example, forcing a child to kneel, squat, stand on one foot, stand with their arms stretched to the sides, etc, for long periods of time, or forcing them to exercise to the point of exhaustion (e.g. passing out, vomiting, etc) - is physical abuse.

Starvation, force feeding, and bathroom restrictions

Most parents regulate their child's food intake, e.g. no candy before dinner, no ice cream unless you eat your veggies, no more than one can of soda per week, etc. The goal of these restrictions is to ensure the child's health. On the other hand, punishing children by starving them or by physically forcing them to consume anything, edible or not, is child abuse. For example, some children are forced to eat sweets till they throw up (for sneaking a cookie), to eat vomit, feces (for soiling themselves), salt, soap, drink Clorox, large amounts of water, or other such substances. Some children are also forbidden to use the bathroom as a punishment (and then punished for soiling themselves), or directed to use the bathroom and punished for failure to make a bowel movement on demand.

Other torture

The line between physical abuse and attempted murder is blurry, and it's impossible to list every type of injury that a parent has ever caused their child. Any deliberate action that is likely to cause injury or death is abuse, however it might be classified legally: assault, endangerment, attempted murder, or anything else. Some common examples are: chemical burns on skin, mouth, eyes, or genitalia; use of any sharp tools; ice cold baths (likely to cause death of hypothermia); scalding hot baths (likely to cause death because of burns on 70-80% of skin surface); drowning (i.e. holding a child's head underwater in a bathtub, basin, or toilet); waterboarding.