State laws vary on what is discipline and what constitutes abuse. The following may help:

Discipline is Probably Excessive If:

  • Child is physically injured, including bruising, broken skin, swelling or a situation that requires medical attention
  • Punishment is meant to instill fear rather than to educate the child
  • Caretaker, whether a parent, guardian or school official, loses control
  • Action is inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Action results from a caretaker’s unreasonable demands or expectations for the child

As a Parent, Ask Yourself…

  • Do I feel good about this exchange?
  • Is there an important lesson that I imparted?
  • Does my child know that I love him or her?
  • Is there mutual respect, or fear?
  • Am I behaving in a way that I want my child to emulate?

Abusive Adults May Share Some General Characteristics, Such As:

  • Lacks knowledge or understanding of a child’s developmental needs
  • Shows immature/impulsive behavior or uses children to meet emotional or physical needs
  • Strict disciplinarian frustrated by unmet expectations for their children; is rigid, compulsive, authoritative or demanding
  • Unrealistic expectations or standards for him/herself and children
  • Lacks interpersonal skills and is unable to interact with other people, form relationships or work together with others
  • Is isolated, with little or no support from family, friends, neighbors and other social groups
  • Parent looks to children to meet their own basic unmet emotional needs for necessities such as warmth, love and support
  • Shows poor self-concept and considers themselves unlovable, worthless, or bad
  • Resents or fears authority
  • Acts in a hostile and aggressive manner
  • Shows cruel or sadistic behavior

Victims of Physical Abuse May Show:

  • Repeated, or frequent, unexplained bruises:
    • On the face, nose, throat, upper arms, buttocks, thighs or lower back
    • In unusual shapes or patterns, or clusters, suggesting use of some instrument (lashes, loops, lines or bites)
  • Burns including:
    • Cigarette burns (circular in shape on palms, hands, feet, genitalia or stomach)
    • Immersion burns (from being forced into hot water; “glove” effect or could be doughnut-shaped)
    • Rope burns
    • Burns in shape of common household appliances or utensils
  • Skeletal injuries to the face, skull, or bones around joints; or fractures or dislocations
  • Lacerations; missing, chipped or loose teeth; lost hair or bald patches; broken eardrums

Victims of Any Abuse May Show:

  • Extreme swings in behaviors (aggression, withdrawal, regression)
  • Depression or excessive crying
  • Unbelievable or inconsistent explanations for injuries
  • Inappropriate fear of a parent or a caretaker
  • Unusual shyness, or wariness of physical contact
  • Antisocial behavior such as running away or substance abuse
  • Reluctance to go home
  • Belief that punishment is deserved

For Assistance and/or More Information:


National sites:

HCJFS 7950 (REV. 2-12)