Physical Punishment Harms Children’s Long-Term Development

Joanna Broder

February 07, 2012

February 7, 2012 — Physically punishing children can significantly affect their long-term development and increase the risk of aggression, antisocial behavior, mental illness, and substance abuse, a new analysis shows.

"Our main message really is that over 20 years of research across countries, across samples, across measures, methodologies — as the methodologies have become better and better — we find the same things over and over and over, and that is that physical punishment predicts only negative long-term outcomes," lead author Joan Durrant, PhD, told Medscape Medical News. "It does not predict any positive long-term outcomes."

In addition to aggression and antisocial behavior, research has also consistently shown that physical punishment predicts anxiety, depression, slower cognitive development, less long-term compliance, weaker relationships with parents, and other problems, she noted.

Dr. Durrant, a clinical child psychologist and professor in the Department of Family Social Services at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, added that these conclusions pertain to ordinary forms of physical punishment such as slapping and spanking.

The analysis is published online February 6 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.


Dr. Durrant added that she hopes this paper, which synthesizes trends in research on physical punishment over 2 decades, will serve as a quick reference for physicians by providing them with the empirical evidence they need to advise parents not to spank.

"Physicians don’t have the time to go and read all the studies themselves," Dr. Durrant said, "so we wanted to summarize it and describe it for them so that they fully confident in giving this message, and they don’t need to worry that they’re saying something that isn’t evidenced-based."

The analysis is also useful for psychiatrists.

When conducting family assessments, psychiatrists might not think to ask parents about how they punish their children. However, if they did, the information "might give them some more hypotheses to check out, and it could lead them to helping parents find more positive, constructive ways of interacting with their children," Dr. Durrant noted.

The analysis traced the development of policy and research on physical punishment, showing how as recently as 20 years ago, the world generally accepted it.

However, when studies started showing links between what was considered normal forms of physical punishment and child aggression, delinquency, and domestic violence in later life, this perspective started to change.

Lack of Decisiveness

In 1990, only 4 countries prohibited physical punishment in all settings, whereas by the year 2000, 31 countries had enacted prohibitions against physical punishment of children, the authors note. The United States continues to allow corporal punishment in schools in 19 states.

Early studies showed a correlation between physical punishment and childhood aggression. The question then naturally turned to causality, Dr. Durrant said.

Were physical punishment and childhood aggression statistically related because more aggressive children tended to elicit more physical punishment from their parents or because physical punishment leads to more aggression in children? Research shows the latter, Dr. Durrant said.

To get around the argument that aggressive kids elicit more spanking, the best studies control for how aggressive children are to begin with, noted Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote a landmark meta-analysis on the topic in 2002.

"If spanking was effective, it would predict decreases in aggression over time," Dr. Gershoff said. "But there isn’t a single study that has found that, and there have been lots of studies that have used that design."

Newer methodologies provide other evidence.

"There are some very sophisticated methods now, such as causal modelling methods and growth curve analysis, that allow researchers to tease out potential causal factors, including time and the child's own aggression level, and come much closer to establishing causality," said Dr. Durrant.

The link between physical punishment and future harm has been firmly demonstrated empirically, she said. Yet despite that evidence, there is still a lack of decisiveness on the issue.

"I’ll see it even in research abstracts, you know, like people who are new to the area, they'll introduce their study by saying '...the findings are controversial.' They're not," she emphasized. "They're not controversial at all. They're highly consistent."

No Room for Mixed Messages

Nadine Block, a former school psychologist and founder of the nonprofit Center for Effective Discipline in Canal Winchester, Ohio, which offers educational information to the public about corporal punishment, said Dr. Durrant's analysis is helpful

"I think it will be useful for physicians who have so little time to keep up in so many areas of practice," she told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Durrant said it is time physicians become more familiar with methods of positive discipline and "to not give mixed messages [to parents] like 'oh, well, a little swat here and there is okay' or 'as long as a child is a certain age' or ‘as long as we don’t leave a bruise,' those kinds of things."

Such statements are not helpful, and they do not help parents find constructive and effective ways of interacting with their children, she noted.

Although it might be difficult for psychiatrists to themselves teach parents techniques in positive discipline, they can refer parents to community resources, Dr. Durrant said.

She wrote a guidebook for parents entitled Positive Discipline: What It Is and How to Do It, which is available free of charge on the Internet. She does not profit from its distribution.

She also recommends guidebooks by Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers: For Their Early Years — Raising Children Who Are Responsible, Respectful, and Resourceful. Another guide Dr. Durrant suggests is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

The authors and commentators report no relevant financial relationships.

CMAJ. Published online February 6, 2012. Article


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