When you’re at your wit’s end with a stubborn, cranky toddler, spanking your child might seem like a solution. Maybe your parents spanked you, or maybe the impulse to lash out simply becomes overwhelming. But a new study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect adds to the growing evidence that not only is spanking ineffective, it could potentially have long-term consequences for mental health.
The risks of spanking
Spanking is defined as the “use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correcting or controlling the child’s behavior.” While spanking might be common, experts note that it sets a violent example and doesn’t make the right point. Kids don’t learn from spanking, and it can affect their relationship with their parents. What’s more, research has shown that parents who rely on spanking to control a child’s behavior may be more likely to physically and emotionally abuse their kids.
While spanking has been banned in 51 countries or areas throughout the world, it’s still legal in the U.S. In the U.S., spanking is not considered physical abuse — which is defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving or slapping. Childhood physical and emotional abuse (along with neglect; parental divorce, separation or incarceration; and living with a household member who has substance abuse problems, mental illness and/or has attempted suicide) are considered an Adverse Childhood Experiences. These experiences have been linked to poor physical and mental health as an adult, including increased risk of depression, suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking and illegal drug use.
What the study looked at
The authors questioned whether spanking should be considered an Adverse Childhood Experience, so they looked into whether it can lead to the same negative emotional and physical health consequences as physical abuse.
Researchers from the University of Michigan used information from the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study of 8316 adults, a survey with a response rate of 65 percent. Respondents were asked how often they were spanked by their parents before the age of 18. People who said they were spanked once or twice were grouped with those who weren’t spanked at all, because spanking was a one-off and not a regular part of their family’s parenting.
The respondents were also asked questions to determine if and how often they had been physically or emotionally abused, on a rolling scale from never to very often. They also answered questions to assess whether they had symptoms of depression over more than two weeks in the last year, whether they drank heavily (7 or more drinks per week for women, 14 for men), or if they had ever used drugs or attempted suicide. The researchers took into account other factors that could impact the study, including respondents’ education levels and relationship status, then looked for any link between spanking and poor mental health as adult.
What it found
Just over half of people (54.8 percent) said they’d been spanked, with boys more likely to have been spanked than girls (61 percent vs. 50 percent). Black respondents were most likely to have been spanked (70 percent) while Asian respondents were least likely (38 percent). Spanking happened across families of all education levels.
Spanking was linked to an increased chance of suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking and the use of recreational drugs later in life, even if people were not physically or emotionally abused. Spanking was not, however, linked to an increased risk of a “depressed effect,” although the authors note that they didn’t look at whether people had actually been diagnosed with depression.
“These findings are consistent with the previous work indicating that spanking and physical abuse are on a continuum of violence against children, and that there is a strong relationship between harsh physical punishment and physical as well as emotional abuse,” the authors write. They note that spanking may have a negative impact on future mental health — and, because spanking can easily escalate to other forms of physical lashing out, helping parents avoid spanking may also prevent other childhood abuse.
The researchers note that the data used in this research is a bit old (over 20 years), and there is the potential for errors when people are reporting events from their past. However they believe that the findings are still strong enough to support their conclusions.
What this means for you
Lots of research has shown spanking may have a negative impact on kids and that it’s not all that effective. In fact, another recent study found that kids were likely to misbehave just 10 minutes after getting spanked. For the last nearly 20 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended against any spanking at all, ever. So while it may be tempting to fall back on a spank from time to time for egregious misbehavior, it’s best to find another discipline tactic that does work.
If you do slip up and accidentally slap your child, try not to stress — you’re only human — and apologize immediately. Be sure to seek help for you or your partner right away if you find yourself slapping your child repeatedly, a slap leaves a mark or is aimed at your child’s head, you use an object to punish your child, or you strike out under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You can reach out to your child’s doctor or a therapist, or call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-4453).