Being spanked as a child appears to be linked to a host of long-term behavioural and mental health issues, according to a new review of evidence published this week.
But the report, which falls short of confirming a causal relationship, may not end the ongoing debate over this controversial form of punishment.
The report, published in the April edition of the Journal of Family Psychology, looked at data from 75 studies, a total of 50 years of data from more than 160,000 children. The researchers analyzed the relationship between childhood spanking and 17 outcomes including aggression, antisocial behavior and other mental health problems.
The research featured findings of experts from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan. It found that 13 out of these 17 outcomes were significantly associated with spanking.
The authors point out, however, that the data cannot conclusively say whether spanking as punishment causes these problems, or vice-versa. For example, they note, children with behavior problems tend to elicit more spankings from their parents in general. Additionally, Besser noted previous research on spanking and outcomes in children has resulted in mixed conclusions.
Still, many may view this latest report as further evidence against the argument that spanking actually “works” as a form of punishment – and that it may also be linked to long-term damage that parents might not be aware of.
Chief Health and Medical Editor, Dr. Richard Besser, a pediatrician, discussed the report’s findings and said;
“There have been hundreds of studies done but one of the concerns is that a lot of the studies included more severe forms of physical punishment like hitting with an object,” Besser said. “So here they looked at 75 studies where it was just spanking, so hitting on the bottom with an open hand. What they found was there were no long-term benefits from that and some potential long-term harm.”
Besser added, “These can’t prove it because you’re not randomly assigning kids to be spanked or not but when they looked at kids with various outcomes, these children were more likely to have been spanked. It’s children with aggressive behavior, children with low self-esteem, poor parent-child relationships and even some mental illness, like depression, more common in people who have been spanked.”
Besser advised parents to focus on shaping their child’s behavior.
“What I say first is catch your child being good,” he said. “Praise works so much better. If you can catch them being good and reinforce that, that’s very effective.”
When a child’s behavior needs to be improved, Besser recommended using age-appropriate techniques.
“Time outs are great for kids who are two to five,” he said. “Older kids, removing some of their privileges and then modeling good behavior.”
“When you spank when you’re angry, you’re teaching your kids when they’re out of control they should use violence and it doesn’t work,” Besser explained. “Often, it’s the parent who needs the timeout.”