Spanking and other physical punishment harm children’s mental health


Spanking has been widely used as a form of physical punishment for child misbehavior, particularly by parents in the United States. Although the acceptance of spanking and other forms of physical punishment has decreased over the past several decades, it is still commonly used as an approach to punish and reduce the frequency of child misbehavior and as a way to elicit more positive or desirable behaviors, according to Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist from the department of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.

Negative consequences of spanking on children’s mental health

Earlier studies have found evidence for the negative consequences of harsh physical punishment on children’s mental health. For example, Tracie O. Afifi, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, and her colleagues investigated the relationship between harsh physical punishment — which was defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping or hitting in the absence of more severe child maltreatment (e.g., emotional, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect) — and mental disorders. The results of this study indicated that the use of harsh physical punishment by parents was associated with increased odds of poor mental health outcomes among children, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and dependence, and personality disorders.

Spanking linked to 13 negative child outcomes, study finds

Despite the widespread use of spanking, smacking, hitting and other types of physical punishment to rear children, research has shown that the use of  these parenting techniques are not only ineffective, they can have long-lasting adverse consequences on children’s behavior, mental health and emotional well-being. Despite the belief that spanking will help to reduce children’s negative behavior or misbehavior, no evidence to date supports this claim.

In fact, children who are spanked do not exhibit improvements in their behavior; they actually exhibit more negative behavior, emotional problems and mental health issues over time, according to a recent meta-analysis of 75 studies conducted by Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, Ph.D., an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan.

Both spanking and physical abuse were associated with detrimental child outcomes, including an increased risk of low self-esteem, child externalizing behavior problems and mental health problems, and adult antisocial behavior and mental health problems. Specifically, children who had a history of being spanked were more likely to experience 13 of the 17 detrimental outcomes investigated in the meta-analysis.

The researchers found that spanking was significantly associated with:

  • More aggressive behavior
  • More antisocial behavior
  • More externalizing problems
  • More internalizing problems
  • More mental health problems
  • More negative parent-child relationships
  • Lower moral internalization
  • Lower cognitive ability
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Greater risk for physical abuse by parents
  • Adult antisocial behavior
  • Adult mental health problems
  • Adult support for physical punishment

Children who were spanked were at an increased risk for negative consequences that affected them well into adulthood. Of the four negative adult outcomes assessed by the researchers, spanking was significantly associated with three of them (i.e., adult antisocial behavior, mental health problems and support for physical punishment).

When spanking and other forms of physical punishment are used by parents to correct their child’s behavior, they not only increase the chances that their child will develop behavioral problems such as aggression, but using forms of violence such as hitting and spanking can undermine the parent-child relationship and have other detrimental consequences on children’s relationships, mental health, and psychological and emotional well-being. Although numerous studies have found that spanking has negative consequences on children, this new meta-analysis was the first to look at how spanking and physical abuse affected children’s negative outcomes; the results suggested that both spanking and physical abuse affect children in similar ways.

Nonviolent alternatives to spanking

Given the negative consequences of spanking, utilizing nonviolent alternatives to corporal punishment, including timeouts, positive reinforcement such as praise to reward children for positive behavior and positive child discipline techniques (e.g., teaching emotions, ignoring bad behavior) can be strategies for teaching children how to deal with conflicts when they arise without resorting to aggressive behavior.

White River Academy is a therapeutic treatment facility for boys from ages 12 to 17 years who have behavioral problems, substance abuse, mental health conditions and co-occurring disorders. Our comprehensive, individualized behavioral health treatment services are evidence-based, and our programs are designed to meet each adolescent’s specific needs. For more information about White River Academy’s programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.  

About the author

Amanda Habermann, graduated from California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques.

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