Chapter Summary and Learning Objectives
- Describe the definition and scope of child physical abuse, including problems inherent in measuring this form of abuse.
- Identify the various risk factors associated with child physical abuse.
- Summarize the consequences of child physical abuse, including both short- and long-term outcomes.
- Discuss the various intervention and prevention efforts that have been developed to address child physical abuse, including evidence of their effectiveness.
The physical abuse of children is a complex problem that is not well understood, despite nearly six decades of research. The complexity of CPA is evident in attempts to define what specific circumstances constitute abuse. Although most experts agree that CPA includes a range of behaviors that cause observable harm to children, there is less agreement
about the boundary between CPA and normal parenting practices that do not result in observable harm. Despite definitional ambiguities, it is clear that thousands of children are subjected to the harm associated with CPA each year.
Research examining the characteristics of physically abusive adults and physically abused children has demonstrated the heterogeneity of both victim and offender populations,
which encompass both sexes and all ages, races, and socioeconomic groups. A number of risk factors, however, have been consistently associated with CPA. Children who are physically abused are often quite young (i.e., 5 years old or younger); children with special needs (e.g., those with physical or mental disabilities) also appear to be at high risk for abuse. Physically abusive adults are found disproportionately among economically disadvantaged groups, and their environments include additional stressors such as having children at a young age and single parenthood. Many adults who inflict violence on children also display other common characteristics, including depression, anger control problems, parenting difficulties, substance abuse problems, family difficulties, and physiological overreactivity.
CPA is associated with a number of negative physical and psychological effects for child victims as well as for adults with childhood histories of CPA. These consequences affect a variety of areas of functioning, including physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral,
and social domains. The experience of CPA, however, does not affect all victims in the same way. Specific factors can mediate the effects of CPA; for example, factors associated with increased negative impact of CPA include the severity of abuse, the duration of the abuse, and the number of forms of abuse experienced.
Proposed solutions to the CPA problem include both intervention and prevention efforts. Because of the complexity of CPA, any single intervention or treatment is unlikely to be successful, particularly with high-risk families. Psychological approaches for children
and their families target parenting skills, anger control and stress management, social and developmental skills, and parent–child interactions. Although enhancing parenting skills, reducing negative parent–child interactions, and decreasing child behavior problems are important intervention and prevention goals, experts also recognize
the value in shifting attention from individual- and family-
focused strategies to efforts that impact society more broadly (through laws and policy initiatives) as well as efforts that additionally focus on creating supportive community environments. The intention of such efforts is to create communities where citizens and professionals alike share the belief that keeping children safe from abuse is a collective responsibility. Public education campaigns have also used the mass media effectively to increase awareness, recognition, and understanding of the CPA problem. Although evaluation studies suggest
that many intervention and prevention strategies are promising, additional research is needed to enhance the current state of knowledge about solutions to the CPA problem.