Physical Abuse and Play Therapy

Physical abuse injures both the body and the psyche of a child. In addition to physical injuries, children can suffer emotional, behavioural and social consequences. Low self-esteem, impaired social skills, learning problems, an “an impaired capacity to enjoy life” are just some of the consequences (Gil, 1991). Physical abuse harms a child – both physically and mentally – even if no marks appear on their body.


Physically abused children are more likely than other children:

  • To have injuries that can’t be explained

  • To be jumpy or extra vigilant

  • To act aggressively or have antisocial behaviours towards others

  • To be withdrawn, anxious or clingy behaviour

  • To have emotional outbursts or problems dealing with emotions

  • To have problems sleeping, including wetting the bed or nightmares

  • To have changes to their eating patterns.


If a child tells you someone is abusing them:

  • Listen to them. Don’t dismiss what they say. It takes courage for a child to tell about abuse. Reassure them they are right to tell you.

  • Stay calm. They may be afraid to say more if you show you are shocked or upset. If it seems like the right thing to do, comfort the child, perhaps by asking if they want a hug.

  • Don’t ask lots of questions. Let them tell you in their own words at their own pace.

  • Make sure the child is safe and let them know you will do your best to stop them being harmed (DECD, 2017).


How Play Therapy can help

  • Play is the way that children learn, make sense of their world, relive and work through vital aspects of their lives, and communicate to others. Children’s ability to communicate their pain through their play makes it one of the most effective means available (White, Draper and Jones, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain, which responds to non-verbal modalities such as play, art, music and sandplay therapy, assists in the processing of trauma (Gil, 2006).

  • Through using play to express their abuse, children can stay emotionally safe by, for example, making the toy feel the pain rather than themselves, or by making a toy the abuser (Ater, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Children learn to come to an acceptance of what has happened to them, and learn new ways of coping to protect themselves from further abuse (Cattanach, 1992, in Landreth, 2001).

Christine Harkin
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