The impact of physical abuse on a child’s life can be far-reaching. It is especially devastating when a parent, the person a child depends on for protection and safety, becomes a danger. Some children develop traumatic stress reactions.
Children who’ve been physically abused may struggle with developing and maintaining friendships. They don’t trust authority figures. They don’t feel good about themselves or see themselves as worthy. They may blame themselves for the abuse and feel that they must keep what goes on in their families a secret. Reactions vary depending on the age of the child, the kind of abuse, and how long it continues.
Many physically abused children become aggressive themselves or have other behavioral problems. Aggression and “acting out” are very common, but there are a wide range of reactions. Some children show few, if any, reactions. They don’t seem to care anymore if they are hit; they’ve lost the normal fight or flight reactions built-in to protect us from danger. These children may also fail to react to other dangers. They may stop trying to make friends or succeed at school or plan for the future.
Some abused children become anxious and fearful rather than numb and withdrawn. This happens frequently when the abuse has no predictable pattern. A child who never knows when a caregiver will become physically violent, and never knows how far the caregiver will go, has no control. That child may become more anxious.
Punishment does not have to lead to physical injury to cause psychological problems. A number of studies have shown that children who are exposed to physical threats and aggressive acts by a caretaker may develop post-traumatic stress reactions and other psychological problems, such as aggressive behavior, depression, and anxiety.