Depressed, Abused Mothers More Likely to Spank Their Children

Marlene Busko

September 25, 2008

September 25, 2008 — Women who are both depressed and in physically abusive relationships are more than twice as likely as women who are not depressed or abused to spank their children, regardless of the child's behavior.

These study findings, from a nationally representative sample of kindergarten-aged children and their mothers, are published online September 11 in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

"Our data suggest that meaningful associations between maternal depression, violence exposure, and spanking persist in the face of varying child behaviors," the researchers, led by Michael Silverstein, MD, at Boston University School of Medicine, in Massachusetts, write.

The investigators also suggest these are "common and potentially modifiable risk factors and are more apt to affect whether or not a mother uses spanking to discipline her children than they are to affect the frequency of spanking."

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

Over the past 10 years, parental use of nonabusive spanking to discipline a misbehaving child has become a controversial topic, the group writes. If child healthcare providers are to engage in effective discussions with parents about this, they need to better understand the dynamics of child spanking.

Previous studies have shown that children are more likely to be spanked if they have a depressed mother, if their parents have a violent relationship, or if they themselves lie, steal, or are disrespectful.

The investigators sought to study the link between maternal depression, violence between the adult partners in the home, and child spanking and determine how child behaviors might affect spanking.

They analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample of children in the United States who attended kindergarten in 1998–1999. The study uses face-to-face parent interviews and teacher surveys.

The investigators determined whether the mothers of these children had clinically significant depressive symptoms based on their responses to a 12-item version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale questionnaire.

They defined exposure to in-home violence as a reply other than "never" in response to the question: "When you have a serious disagreement with your partner, how often do you end up hitting or throwing things at each other?"

Teacher responses to a social rating scale were used to assess a child's tendency to exhibit self-controlled, positive behavior or negative, externalizing behavior.

The mother's frequency of spanking was determined by asking her: "Sometimes kids mind pretty well and sometimes they don't. About how many times, if any, have you spanked (child) in the past week? "

The 12,764 biological mother-child pairs with complete data were assigned to 1 of 4 mutually exclusive categories based on maternal risk factors:

  • No clinically significant depressive symptoms and no violence exposure (n = 10,299).

  • Depressive symptoms (n = 1742).

  • Violence exposure (n = 487).

  • Depressive symptoms and violence exposure (n = 236).

The mother-child pairs were assessed during the kindergarten year when the children had a mean age of 6.2 years. Just over 50% of the children were male. On average, the mothers were 33 years old and had 2 to 3 children living at home.

Spanking Reported by More Than 1 in 4 Mothers

Spanking was reported by about 1 in 4 mothers who were neither depressed nor exposed to violence in the home, by about 1 in 3 mothers who had 1 risk factor, and by about 1 in 2 mothers with both risk factors.

The mean number of spankings per week followed a similar pattern.

Prevalence and Frequency of Reported Child Spanking

Mother's Risk Group Mothers Who Spanked Their Children (%) Mean Number of Spankings Per Week
No depressive symptoms or exposure to domestic violence 24 1.49
Depressive symptoms 35 1.68
Exposure to domestic violence 33 1.68
Depressive symptoms and exposure to domestic violence 46 1.92

Compared with those with no depressive symptoms, mothers who were depressed were almost 60% more likely to spank their child; mothers who were both depressed and had violent arguments with their partners were 2.5 times more likely to spank their child.

Adjusted Odds Ratios for Child Spanking Among Mothers With Depressive Symptoms and or Exposure to Domestic Violence

Risk Factors Adjusted Odds Ratio (95% CI)*
No depressive symptoms or exposure to domestic violence 1.00
Depressive symptoms 1.59 (1.40 – 1.80)
Exposure to domestic violence 1.48 (1.18 – 1.85)
Depressive symptoms and exposure to domestic violence 2.51 (1.87 – 3.37)

size="1">*Odds ratio adjusted for mother's age, child's age and sex, number of siblings in the home, and family socioeconomic status; not adjusted for child behaviors.

The risks of spanking remained the same after further adjustment for either positive or negative child behavior.

Several studies suggest that regular spanking early in a child's life may predispose the child to behavior problems in later life. "Subsequent research on the impact of maternal depression on children should consider the potentially exacerbating effects of violence," they write.

Dr .Silverstein is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation under its Physician Faculty Scholars Program. The study authors report no competing interests.

Arch Dis Child. Published online September 11, 2008. Abstract

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