Effects of spanking children

The case against spanking

A growing body of research has shown that spanking and other forms of physical discipline can pose serious risks to children, but many parents aren’t hearing the message.

“It’s a very controversial area even though the research is extremely telling and very clear and consistent about the negative effects on children,” says Sandra Graham-Bermann, PhD, a psychology professor and principal investigator for the Child Violence and Trauma Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “People get frustrated and hit their kids. Maybe they don’t see there are other options.”

Many studies have shown that physical punishment — including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain — can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children. Americans’ acceptance of physical punishment has declined since the 1960s, yet surveys show that two-thirds of Americans still approve of parents spanking their kids.

But spanking doesn’t work, says Alan Kazdin, PhD, a Yale University psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. “You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want,” says Kazdin, who served as APA president in 2008. “There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”

Evidence of harm

On the international front, physical discipline is increasingly being viewed as a violation of children’s human rights. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive in 2006 calling physical punishment “legalized violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings through “legislative, administrative, social and educational measures.” The treaty that established the committee has been supported by 192 countries, with only the United States and Somalia failing to ratify it.

Around the world, 30 countries have banned physical punishment of children in all settings, including the home. The legal bans typically have been used as public education tools, rather than attempts to criminalize behavior by parents who spank their children, says Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, a leading researcher on physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous,” she says.

After reviewing decades of research, Gershoff wrote the Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children, published in 2008 in conjunction with Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The report recommends that parents and caregivers make every effort to avoid physical punishment and calls for the banning of physical discipline in all U.S. schools. The report has been endorsed by dozens of organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

After three years of work on the APA Task Force on Physical Punishment of Children, Gershoff and Graham- Bermann wrote a report in 2008 summarizing the task force’s recommendations. That report recommends that “parents and caregivers reduce and potentially eliminate their use of any physical punishment as a disciplinary method.” The report calls on psychologists and other professionals to “indicate to parents that physical punishment is not an appropriate, or even a consistently effective, method of discipline.”

“We have the opportunity here to take a strong stand in favor of protecting children,” says Graham-Bermann, who chaired the task force.

APA’s Committee on Children, Youth and Familiescwrqftrarwdfbzarssfetwzcdvzuryyvc (CYF) and the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest unanimously approved a proposed resolution last year based on the task force recommendations. It states that APA supports “parents’ use of non-physical methods of disciplining children” and opposes “the use of severe or injurious physical punishment of any child.” APA also should support additional research and a public education campaign on “the effectiveness and outcomes associated with corporal punishment and nonphysical methods of discipline,” the proposed resolution states. After obtaining feedback from other APA boards and committees in the spring of 2012, APA’s Council of Representatives will consider adopting the resolution as APA policy.

Preston Britner, PhD, a child developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, helped draft the proposed resolution as co-chair of CYF. “It addresses the concerns about physical punishment and a growing body of research on alternatives to physical punishment, along with the idea that psychology and psychologists have much to contribute to the development of those alternative strategies,” he says.

More than three decades have passed since APA approved a resolution in 1975 opposing corporal punishment in schools and other institutions, but it didn’t address physical discipline in the home. That resolution stated that corporal punishment can “instill hostility, rage and a sense of powerlessness without reducing the undesirable behavior.”

Research findings

Physical punishment can work momentarily to stop problematic behavior because children are afraid of being hit, but it doesn’t work in the long term and can make children more aggressive, Graham-Bermann says.

A study published last year in Child Abuse and Neglect revealed an intergenerational cycle of violence in homes where physical punishment was used. Researchers interviewed parents and children age 3 to 7 from more than 100 families. Children who were physically punished were more likely to endorse hitting as a means of resolving their conflicts with peers and siblings. Parents who had experienced frequent physical punishment during their childhood were more likely to believe it was acceptable, and they frequently spanked their children. Their children, in turn, often believed spanking was an appropriate disciplinary method.

The negative effects of physical punishment may not become apparent for some time, Gershoff says. “A child doesn’t get spanked and then run out and rob a store,” she says. “There are indirect changes in how the child thinks about things and feels about things.”

As in many areas of science, some researchers disagree about the validity of the studies on physical punishment. Robert Larzelere, PhD, an Oklahoma State University professor who studies parental discipline, was a member of the APA task force who issued his own minority report because he disagreed with the scientific basis of the task force recommendations. While he agrees that parents should reduce their use of physical punishment, he says most of the cited studies are correlational and don’t show a causal link between physical punishment and long-term negative effects for children.

“The studies do not discriminate well between non-abusive and overly severe types of corporal punishment,” Larzelere says. “You get worse outcomes from corporal punishment than from alternative disciplinary techniques only when it is used more severely or as the primary discipline tactic.”

In a meta-analysis of 26 studies, Larzelere and a colleague found that an approach they described as “conditional spanking” led to greater reductions in child defiance or anti-social behavior than 10 of 13 alternative discipline techniques, including reasoning, removal of privileges and time out (Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2005). Larzelere defines conditional spanking as a disciplinary technique for 2- to 6-year-old children in which parents use two open-handed swats on the buttocks only after the child has defied milder discipline such as time out.

Gershoff says all of the studies on physical punishment have some shortcomings. “Unfortunately, all research on parent discipline is going to be correlational because we can’t randomly assign kids to parents for an experiment. But I don’t think we have to disregard all research that has been done,” she says. “I can just about count on one hand the studies that have found anything positive about physical punishment and hundreds that have been negative.”

Teaching new skills

If parents aren’t supposed to hit their kids, what nonviolent techniques can help with discipline? The Parent Management Training program headed by Kazdin at Yale is grounded in research on applied behavioral analysis. The program teaches parents to use positive reinforcement and effusive praise to reward children for good behavior.

Kazdin also uses a technique that may sound like insanity to most parents: Telling toddlers to practice throwing a tantrum. Parents ask their children to have a pretend tantrum without one undesirable element, such as hitting or kicking. Gradually, as children practice controlling tantrums when they aren’t angry, their real tantrums lessen, Kazdin says.

Remaining calm during a child’s tantrums is the best approach, coupled with time outs when needed and a consistent discipline plan that rewards good behavior, Graham-Bermann says. APA offers the Adults & Children Together Against Violence program, which provides parenting skills classes through a nationwide research-based program called Parents Raising Safe Kids. The course teaches parents how to avoid violence through anger management, positive child discipline and conflict resolution. (For more information on ACT, see the November Monitor.)

Parents should talk with their children about appropriate means of resolving conflicts, Gershoff says. Building a trusting relationship can help children believe that discipline isn’t arbitrary or done out of anger.

“Part of the problem is good discipline isn’t quick or easy,” she says. “Even the best of us parents don’t always have that kind of patience.”

Brendan L. Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.

In many Western cultures, there’s a longstanding history of permission to spank children. Many of our parents spanked. And most of us hold the perspective that our parents were doing their very best to love us. So whether to spank children or not is a confusing issue—if we turned out OK, and our parents spanked us, then isn’t spanking an acceptable, even desirable way to make sure that children do what’s right?

It seems to me that there are three core questions to ask about spanking. The first is the broader question, what’s the long term effect of spanking on children? The second is, does physical punishment really work to control a child’s behavior in the moment? And there’s a third important question, seldom asked but certainly relevant and a good place for us to begin: what does spanking do to us as parents?

What does spanking do to the parent?

Most parents feel angry when they spank. An angry person is determined to assert control in a situation, and doing something physical feels like it will bring some relief. So spanking a child may make a parent feel temporarily righteous, back in control, or vindicated. It may give a parent the sense that he did not allow himself to be victimized.

However, there are very few parents who have gazed at their newborn child and thought, “I can hardly wait until I can spank my beautiful daughter!” or “When he gets a little older, it will be so good to have the chance to spank his little bottom.”

We know that these statements are absurd! When a parent feels he has no alternative but to spank, he is acting out of desperation: he doesn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t part of his original plan for relating to his precious child.

Parents have to steel themselves emotionally in order to follow through with a spanking. We have to harden our hearts. Or, perhaps more often, a challenging situation that we’ve been trying hard to deal with finally sends us into emotional badlands; where love can’t be felt. And there, we feel that our child has driven us to spank—it’s their fault, not ours, that our hand hit them.

I don’t think parents like to spank. And the more often parents spank, the less rewarding parenting feels. Spanking is a road to a place they don’t choose, but parents who spank are often too stressed, both by “having” to spank, and by the other pressures in their lives, to find their own inner compass that says, “Change direction!”

Does spanking control a child’s behavior in the short term?

When a child is spanked, his or her limbic system (the emotional center of the brain, and the part of the mind that mediates learning and understanding) goes into alarm mode. The child’s brain clearly perceives spanking as an occasion of danger, and responds accordingly.

For the child, it is an experience of being small and unable to control an overwhelming and unpredictable force. In this state, his mind can learn nothing. His prefrontal cortex, the center of reason and judgment, shuts down. Hence, a child’s behavior during and after a spanking is not thoughtful behavior. It’s reactive.

The “control” that the parent is striving for has everything to do with fear, and nothing to do with teaching, learning, or a child’s understanding of concepts of right and wrong. What the child “learns” is that, seemingly out of the blue, for reasons he can’t fathom, he has been hit or hurt by a person who loves him. This is a confusing lesson indeed.

Spankings are perceived by a child to be random acts of violence. Over time, they create a wedge of fear and resentment between child and parent. The more time a child spends with his mind shut down by the fear response that physical attack brings, the more reactive his behavior becomes. A vicious cycle results: a fearful child becomes aggressive or withdrawn, the parent spanks in response, the child becomes more frightened, and loses control of his own behavior more often.

So, though a spanking may result in a quieter, more cautious child for a few hours, that apparent peace has a high price. A child’s sense of safety, and with it, his ability to reason, to cooperate, to learn, and to trust are all eroded with every spanking—so is a child’s openness to love from his parent.

What are the long-term effects of spanking?

Many studies have been done on spanking in the United States and in other countries. The evidence is clear that the effects on children are negative. The American Academy of Pediatrics and a long list of other professional societies take a clear stand against the corporal punishment of children, both at home and in the schools.

One large study showed that the more parents spanked children for antisocial behavior, the more the antisocial behavior increased (Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997). The more children are hit, the more likely they are to hit others, including peers and siblings and, as adults, the more likely they are to hit their spouses (Straus & Gelles, 1990; Wolfe, 1987).

Studies show that even a few instances of having been hit as a child are associated with more depressive symptoms in adult life (Strauss, 1994; Strassberg, Dodge, Pettit & Bates, 1994). A landmark meta-analysis of eighty-eight corporal punishment research studies of over six decades showed that corporal punishment of children was associated with negative outcomes, including increased delinquent and antisocial behavior, increased risk of child abuse and spousal abuse, increased risk of child aggression and adult aggression, decreased child mental health and decreased adult mental health (Gershoff, 2002). It has also been shown that corporal punishment has an adverse effect on a child’s cognitive development.

What is a parent to do instead?

We parents need more support than we get. It’s not right that we must repeatedly face parenting issues that drain our patience, without any idea of how to find help. It’s not right that there’s no dependable way to restore our emotional balance, when we’re beyond frustration. It seems to me that spankings point to our need for more help, more kindness in our own lives, and less worry about our futures and the futures of our children. We want the best for them, and we need better help for ourselves, too.

We parents need to listen to each other’s stories, to hear each other out. We need to hear how many troubles an exhausted or frustrated parent has seen. We need to offer each other appreciation for the things we do well. We need someone we’ve built a measure of trust with to hear all about our anger, our worries and our desperate moments.

It’s remarkable how much difference the chance to be listened to can make in a parent’s life! And then, we need to move close to our children, instead of attacking them for their troubles.

It’s an unusual thing to do, but to move close, set a limit, and then stay with a child while the passionate feelings pour out is far kinder than punishment. It also helps a child learn from the limit that was set.

His mind flushes corrosive emotional tension out while you keep things safe around him. And in the end, he knows you love him. You listened to him. That drive to cross the limit again is gone. You’ve connected with him. His mind has moved from an “I don’t care what they say!” state to feeling like part of the family again.

Staylistening—listening until the child’s feelings are spent—helps a child actually learn from mistakes and poor judgment. At the end of a good cry or tantrum that’s supported by his parent, a child can make sense of what just happened. He understands the limit that was set, and that limit doesn’t leave lingering resentment or anger.

Short range, it helps a child rebuild his connection with the parent who listened to him, so his mind works again, right here, right now. And it gives a parent a way to exert real power when a child has gone off track. The parent uses the power of his caring, and the power of his good judgment, to retrieve his child from behavior that wasn’t working for either of them.

Staylistening in action: here’s how it can work.

It’s been really hard. Our four-year-old son has been extra demanding lately. He has been asking for what feels like constant attention and in often unflattering ways. Requests for help come out as demands. He also has been intensely rigid. The shoes aren’t tied right. The hood isn’t just so. All of which have triggered down-on-the-floor tantrums with wails and flailing legs and arms. And they have come some days endlessly one after another even with all our many hours of focused attention.

To add to it lately, he has started hitting his sister, me and my husband. He only hits at home and never has hit friends or other relatives.

This morning we could see it coming again. As my husband and I both can feel triggered by the intensity of our son’s rage, especially when it was directed at us, we decided until things shifted, we would work together when we could to help our son through his big feelings. This morning was our second attempt together at helping him; the previous night we had stayed together as well.

This morning, my husband set the limit and brought him upstairs. I joined him and together we stayed with our son while he flailed on the bed, screaming at us. He didn’t want to hit a pillow or any other object; he wanted to hit one of us, with our faces being the prime target. We kept ourselves safe and reminded him that he was safe. As the feelings intensified, he complained of not being able to breathe when it was clear to us that physically he could breathe. I think that he was having some kind of emotional flashback. We told him we could see he was breathing and that we would make sure he continued to breathe just fine. He pushed hard against us with all his strength. It went on like this for what felt like forever.

Then he stopped, just stopped and popped up his head. He nuzzled close to me and, with no forethought, I made a circle out of my arms which our son took as an invitation to squirm his way through the circular opening in my arms. Making it safely to the other side, he came back triumphantly to squish his way back through the circle again. He asked to do it again and again. “Tighten your arms this time” he’d request. Each time he made it through he’d smile. Back and forth he’d go between his dad’s arms and mine. Soon his sister, hearing his giggles, joined in and we all had a good laugh on the bed.

We needed it. We made it through. I wonder whether, that whole time, he had been working through feelings from his birth. We’ll never know, but he was sure enjoying getting through a tight spot again and again at the end! And he was easygoing for the rest of that day.

Harmful effects of spanking a toddler can trigger bad behavior — even 10 years later

A new study finds spanking and other physical discipline techniques continue to have adverse effects on children for far longer than originally thought.

Children spanked when they were as young as 15 months old displayed negative temperament and were less likely to show positive behaviors in the fifth grade and even into their teenage years, researchers at the University of Missouri say. The finding was vastly more pronounced in African-American children than those of European origin.

“How parents treat their children at a young age … significantly impacts their behavior,” says Gustavo Carlo, a study co-author who is a Milsapp professor of diversity at the university and director of its center for family policy and research. “It is very important that parents refrain from physical punishment as it can have long-lasting impacts. If we want to nurture positive behaviors, all parents should teach a child how to regulate their behaviors early,”

Past research has indicated physical punishment can have negative consequences on children’s development, but previous studies only examined short-term impacts.

In the new study published in Developmental Psychology late last month, Carlo’s team analyzed data from 1,840 mothers and children who were at or below the federal poverty level and identified as either of European or African descent. Information was collected when children were about 15 months old, 25 months old and in the fifth grade. Researchers used surveys of mothers and children, home visits and interviews with fifth-grade teachers to complete the study.

Long-term effects of severe discipline, such as increased aggressive and delinquent behaviors, were only found in African-American children, according to the study. Previous research, however, has shown short-term negative effects for children of all races and ethnicities. Carlo says that disparity might be tied to more frequent and more severe disciplining of the African-American children involved in the study.

Parenting expert Carole Lieberman, who authored Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror says physical discipline is bad for any child and wonders if the parents of European-descent children involved in the study were less forthcoming with how much physical discipline they used.

“With each spanking, children experience physical pain as well as emotional pain as a sign that their parents don’t love them,” she says. “Spanking conveys a message to them that they are not good. It causes them to become aggressive later on in their lives.”

Carlo stressed the study does not suggest that the use of physical disciplining automatically means any child exposed to spanking or other physical discipline will end up maladjusted. However, this research, along with the majority of existing studies, highlight the use of such practices significantly increases the likelihood of problems later in life.

“If we think about child development as a jigsaw puzzle where many things are affecting our kids, this is one piece of the puzzle that increases the chances of negative child outcomes,” he said. “As a parent, it is worth considering whether it is worth the risk, especially when there are many other alternatives available.”

Alternative techniques to discipline children include time outs, distractions, removing them from the situation, moral conversations and loss of privileges, Carlo says. While physical punishment and yelling are both relatively bad for children, verbal discipline might not be so harmful if done in a controlled manner that relays a message that the child’s behavior is unacceptable.

Psychologists have known for many years that physical punishment is detrimental to the development of children and this study provides further evidence for that relationship, says Brian Johnson, Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Northern Colorado and Co-author of WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression.

“Physical discipline, including spanking, is associated with increased aggressive behavior and lower self-esteem in children,” he says. “Spanking models for children that using aggression is fine when one is upset, or has a conflict.”

Parents often resort to spanking because they see quick changes in their children’s behavior. Unfortunately, Johnsonsays, any positive behavior changes are seldom long-lasting, while the detrimental effects on behavioral and emotional health can be.

“Spanking suppresses behavior quickly, but does not change it,” he says. “Spanking also increases a child’s anger, resentment, and desire to get revenge.”

The negative effects of spanking could impact a child for up to 10 years: study

The psychological effects of spanking a child may last up to 10 years, a new study has found.

According to researchers at the University of Missouri, spanking during infancy can have a negative impact on a child’s temperament and behaviour into the fifth grade and even their teenage years.

READ MORE: Is spanking kids as bad as child abuse? This study seems to think so

“Long-term studies on the links among parenting, temperament and children’s social behaviours have been limited, especially among racially diverse, low-income populations,” Gustavo Carlo, Millsap professor of diversity at University of Missouri, said in a statement. “Our findings show that differences exist in the roles of parenting, temperament and self-regulation and how they impact a child’s development.”

The research team analyzed data from 1,840 mothers and their children who were enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. All those participating were at – or below the federal poverty level and either identified as European American or African American.

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The data was gathered when the children were about 15 months old, 25 months old and then again in the fifth grade. Researchers also included surveys of moms and children, home visits and interviews with fifth-grade teachers.

5:33 Spanking debate and health benefits of marriage

After combing through the data, researchers found that if African-American children, in particular, experienced severe punishment via spanking at 15 months, they were more likely to show an increase in aggressive and delinquent behaviours by the time they reach the fifth grade.

However, they were also more likely to show positive behaviours as well – for example, helping others.

There was no link found between punishment and negative emotions for European-American children. Instead, the link was found to be between negative emotions (like irritability).

For both groups, though, it was found that good self-regulation was a more likely predictor of better behavioural outcomes.

“This study sort of reaffirms stuff that we’ve already heard repeatedly about how important it is to find alternatives to spanking,” says parenting expert Ann Douglas, who was not a part of the study. “Spanking really damages the parent-child relationship. It encourages the child to fear the parent as opposed to respecting the parent.”

She adds, “Respect is earned and I think we also have to think about how it impacts on the child’s sense of trust and the child’s feeling of being accepted as who they are.”

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Douglas also believes spanking is a very short-sighted parenting strategy that can have the opposite effect.

READ MORE: Are time-outs as bad as spanking?

“It prioritizes getting compliance in the second as opposed to looking at the longer term goals, which is the type of relationship you want to have with your child – and the kind of child you hope your child will become,” she says. “It also gives kids a really warped idea about power. Instead of encouraging them to treat other people with respect, you’re modelling the idea that if you’re bigger and have more power than another person then it’s OK to bully them into submission.”

So the best way to get through to a child, Douglas says, is by using alternatives to spanking.

“Talk things through with your child,” she explains. “Use the same kind of communication skills and respect we give to other adults because we want to bring that attitude and approach to our problem solving to our relationships with our kids.”

This isn’t the first study to look at the impacts of spanking on children.

Last year, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin did a meta analysis of 50 years of research on spanking.

The study confirmed that the more children are spanked, the more of a chance of them defying their parents and increasing their anti-social behaviour and aggression. It was also found to impact a child’s mental health and cause cognitive difficulties.

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Spanking by the Numbers

Many parents have been there: their child acts up or does something cringeworthy, and they contemplate a swat on the behind as a way to discipline and teach him or her a lesson. But how many of those parents actually stop and think about what that spank may do to their child’s brain and behavior in the long run?

National Attitudes

Following the analysis of a 2014 national survey on parent attitudes toward spanking, Child Trends found that 76% of men and 65% of women ages 18-65 believe that kids occasionally deserve a ”good, hard spanking.” The survey also showed that from 1986 to 2014, the percentage of women who believe in spanking dropped from 82% to 65%, while the number of men who agree with the practice has remained relatively steady since 1991 (ranging from 73% to 78%). These numbers tell us that although spanking has become more controversial, the majority of adults in the United States still agree that it is an acceptable punishment when kids are out of line.

Research Results

However, research increasingly shows that spanking can have negative effects – both psychological and behavioral – on its young recipients. In fact, a 2016 Journal of Family Psychology report states that spanking is ineffective at improving problematic child behavior and is known to increase the possibility of 13 different detrimental outcomes.

Whether you spank your children or not, it’s good to be aware of the effects that it can potentially have on them. Let’s take a closer look.

Spanking and the Brain

When it comes to spanking’s impact on the brain, it might be more serious than you think. Harsh corporal punishment (HCP) – including spanking – has been shown to reduce the amount of gray matter in the brains of adolescents who were subjected to repeated episodes. Gray matter is the connective tissue found between brain cells that is essential for proper brain development and functioning. It plays a very important role in many brain-based functions, including emotions, senses, intelligence, learning capabilities, speech, muscle control, and memory. This indicates that children with less gray matter may struggle with these vital functions and, ultimately, in several areas of their lives.

Spanking’s Impact on Behavior

Because spanking can have such a large impact on the brain and psychological functions, it is easy to understand how it might lead to problems with behavior. After all, behavior is influenced by emotions, and if there are issues with emotions, they can easily lead to issues elsewhere.

Agression and Externalization

First of all, kids on the receiving end of HCP are more likely to externalize their behavior (e.g., fight, swear, yell) and show aggression down the road. Further, parents who spank their kids are basically teaching them that it’s completely acceptable to use physical force to solve problems. This can then lead to issues with moral development, or the ability to distinguish what’s right from what’s wrong. For example, if kids grow up being spanked for every little thing they do wrong, they may think that it’s okay to physically harm others who do wrong. They may also be more likely to use HCP on their own children in the future.

Additionally, kids who get spanked are more apt to exhibit antisocial behavior. This may be due to the way that spanking makes them feel about themselves. If they feel like failures and/or troublemakers, they may start to get depressed, and this may come off as antisocial or overly introverted behavior.

Spanking’s Impact on Parent/Child Relations

Another important point that should be considered is the impact that HCP can have on the parent/child relationship. If parents repeatedly resort to using physical force to ”fix” situations, this may leave their kids feeling scared, confused, and unsure if they can trust mom or dad. It also rationalizes bad behavior (spanking) rather than addressing the true reason behind most situations. For example, if two siblings are arguing over a toy and a parent walks in and spanks them both, what do the kids really learn? They learn that fighting over toys gets them both a spanking!

Differential Reinforcement

In the above situation (and the majority of others), a seemingly better alternative to spanking would be for the parent to use differential reinforcement. This focuses on increasing good behaviors and decreasing troublesome ones without the use of HCP. Although there are a number of ways in which parents can apply differential reinforcement (and situations vary), some examples include calmly discussing/diffusing a tense situation, refusing to give bad behaviors attention, and praising good behaviors.

Moving Forward

You should now have a solid understanding of the numerous effects that spanking can have on a child’s brain and behavior. Given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence on the topic, it’s quite clear that HCP – including spanking – may lead to detrimental outcomes down the road.

Spanking: The Case Against It (Ages 1-3)

Should I spank my child?

The short answer is no. When your child misbehaves or acts in defiant, inappropriate, or even dangerous ways, you want to show him his behavior is unacceptable and must change. Spanking may seem like a direct and effective way to do that, but it delivers other messages you don’t want to send:

  • Fear. Spanking teaches your child to fear you — not to listen to you or respect you. He may also be humiliated and resentful, and retaliate by being uncooperative. The result: You’ll be less able to reason with and set effective limits for your child.
  • Distrust. Spanking teaches your child that when he make mistakes, you’ll punish him rather than give sympathetic guidance. It erodes trust and disrupts the bond between you and your child that will allow him to be confident and flourish.
  • Might makes right. If you spank, your child may learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. Not surprisingly, perhaps, studies show that kids who are spanked are more likely to hit and fight with other children. Studies also show that children who are hit are more likely to become violent adults.
  • Poor self-esteem. Many studies have shown that hitting your child can hurt more than his body: It can injure his sense of self. He may reason that if he weren’t such a bad boy, he wouldn’t get hit. Studies by the late psychologist Irwin Hyman and colleagues at Temple University have shown that regardless of how nurturing a family is, spanking always lowers self-esteem.
  • Danger. Spanking can be physically dangerous, especially if you hit harder than you intended. Sometimes spanking can bruise a child, leave hematomas (blood blisters), or injure soft tissue; some kids have even been hospitalized because of it.

But if I was spanked and I’m okay, why shouldn’t I spank my kids?

That’s a natural question. After all, most of us were spanked as children — 82 percent, according to the latest poll — and we didn’t turn out so bad, did we? We may feel that our parents were good parents, that they spanked us because they loved us, so why shouldn’t we practice the same “tough love” on our kids?

The answer is that we know far more about the negative effects of spanking than we used to. Our parents may have loved us; they may have been been wonderful parents. But if they knew what we know now, they might not have spanked us. Among other things, research shows that children who are physically punished by their parents are more likely to engage in violent, aggressive behavior — both as children and as adults.

Only a few decades ago some child-rearing experts — even noted pediatrician Benjamin Spock — saw spanking as an acceptable way to discipline children. But Dr. Spock and his colleagues have learned better. Today the American Academy of Pediatrics and other child health organizations strongly oppose physical punishment in children.

But what’s the harm in a little smack?

Plenty. In a study released in July 2002, a psychologist who analyzed six decades of research on corporal punishment found that it puts children at risk for long-term harm that far outweighs the short-term benefit of on-the-spot obedience.

Psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff of Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty found links between spanking and aggression, anti-social behavior, and mental health problems. Gershoff spent five years analyzing 88 studies of corporal punishment conducted since 1938.

Another study by psychologist Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, followed 800 children between the ages of 2 and 4 and made this surprising finding: Kids who were spanked scored lower on tests that measured their ability to learn. Straus thinks the reason may be that parents who don’t spank their children spend more time talking and reasoning with them. “The less corporal punishment used,” he says, “the more stimulation they provided to the child.”

Straus also believes that spanking may get children to stop misbehaving in the short run, but it makes them more likely to act out in the long run. His 1997 study found that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to fight, steal, and engage in other antisocial behavior. This echoes several other studies, which found that children who are hit at home are more likely to become juvenile delinquents as teenagers than those who weren’t physically punished. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from depression.

What if I just shake my child instead?

Don’t do it. Young children are especially fragile because their brains are still developing. Every year, thousands of kids 2 and under are injured — sometimes killed — when they are shaken or hit. Shaken infant syndrome, as doctors call it, most often happens to kids under 1 and sometimes to those under 2. It can cause cerebral hemorrhage, blindness, severe brain damage, and even death.

Is spanking still widespread?

While a significant number of parents still use corporal punishment, recent research shows that the majority are now choosing not to physically discipline their children. A 1995 survey by the Gallup organization found that 94 percent of parents said they had physically punished their 4- and 5-year-old children, and nearly 30 percent of the parents admitted to hitting children between 5 and 12 with belts, paddles, or other objects. But a 2010 University of Michigan poll suggests a national trend toward non-physical discipline, with just 38 percent of parents saying they are likely to spank or paddle children between the ages of 2 and 5.

But isn’t spanking effective?

Spanking may temporarily stop an annoying behavior. But parenting is a long-term proposition, and research shows that in the long-term spanking isn’t effective. Many parents who start spanking soon find they need to up the ante — to spank more and harder in order to get their child’s attention. Hitting a child while yelling, “this is the only way I can get through to you,” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many experts have also found that over time, spanking makes a child angry and resentful; he also becomes less — not more — willing to do what you ask. That pattern can begin as early as age 1. A 1986 study published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, for instance, found that 1-year-olds who were frequently spanked by their mothers were far more likely to ignore Mom’s requests, compared to children who were rarely or never spanked.

How can I avoid spanking my child?

It helps to remember that young children, especially 2- and 3-year-olds, are going to push your buttons and test limits — it’s part of their job description. And it’s natural for you to get extremely angry with your child sometimes, but if you make an ironclad rule for yourself that you won’t hit your child — ever — you’ll avoid the negative consequences of spanking. You’ll also avoid a situation in which anger can turn a light slap turn into a dangerous blow.

Of course, you will still get frustrated and furious at times — it’s inevitable. It helps to remember that it’s hard being 2 and 3. One minute, you’re all-powerful and can do anything without help. The next minute, you’re frustrated, unable to accomplish a simple task, and throwing a toy across the room. As your child lurches back and forth between being powerful and feeling humiliated, you can help him save face with your understanding and support.

If you’re the primary caregiver for your child, cultivate friendships with other parents and set up playdates — they’ll give you a break and are a fun way for your child to feel more independent and learn new social skills. Have friends or family you can call in a pinch, and try to plan some time off for yourself. Many communities have parent talk lines you can call if you’re feeling stressed out and fear you might lose your temper. Your pediatrician or your birth hospital can help you find one.

How can I get my toddler to behave without spanking?

It helps to remember that it’s hard being 2 and 3. One minute, your new skills make you feel all-powerful and confident. The next minute, you’re frustrated by a difficult task and throwing a toy across the room in a tantrum. As your child lurches back and forth between being powerful and feeling humiliated, your job as a parent is to help him save face and learn how to manage those difficult feelings. Try operating at your child’s pace when possible rather than trying to force him to move at yours. Be as flexible as you can, but be unyielding on the important things, especially issues of safety.

What can I do instead of spanking?

  • Make your home safe. Child-proof your living space so your child won’t get into things or places he shouldn’t — and you won’t be overtaken by a sudden panic.
  • Avoid direct clashes. If you order your child to stop throwing his food and he obstinately refuses, distract him instead. “Stay adult,” says Penelope Leach, “and remember that you are much cleverer than your child. You can almost always find a diversion.”
  • Teach empathy. From the earliest time that a child can begin to understand, it’s important to teach morality. That is, the child should learn to do the right thing because it’s right, not because he’ll be punished if he doesn’t do it. This can be done by explaining to the child why it’s wrong to do something that may be hurtful to others. For instance, rather than saying, “If you hit me, I’ll hit you back,” try saying, “You shouldn’t hit me because it hurts, and you know how it feels to be hurt.” Even though a child may not catch on right away, if you’re patient and give examples, he’ll eventually understand.
  • Teach children to avoid danger. Rather than spanking your child if he nears a dangerous spot (like the fireplace), show him the fireplace and repeat his word for pain (such as “owie”). Soon your child will point, say “owie,” and avoid the dangerous spot.
  • Use your imagination. You’re also bigger and stronger than your child you can use that to defuse a situation, rather than letting it escalate. If your child won’t head for his room when it’s bedtime, pick him up and turn him into an airplane heading for the runway — his bed.
  • Make room for negative feelings. Let your toddler express feelings like anger, sadness, and disappointment, and empathize with him (“You must feel mad about that”). At the same time, set limits on inappropriate behavior. You can tell him, for example, that it’s okay to feel mad at his little sister for knocking over his blocks, but that he can’t hit her or call her mean names.

When you feel you must “punish” your child, remember that, in his eyes, your disapproval or anger is the heaviest punishment of all. And any punishment you do mete out should be immediate, because a child this young can’t think about later consequences, only what’s happening right here and now. So if he misbehaves in the morning, don’t tell him he can’t watch a video that night. But if he acts up in the video store and refuses to stop, you can pick him up and say “That’s it, we’re going now and we won’t be able to get a video.”

Most importantly, demonstrate with your own action the kind of behavior you want from him. If you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it and to tell him you’re sorry. He’ll be more likely to grow up into the kind of adult you’re proud of.

Further Resources

The Case Against Spanking: How To Discipline Your Child Without Hitting, Irwin A. Hyman, 1997: Jossey-Bass.

Raising a Thinking Child: Helping Your Young Child Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along With Others, Myrna B. Shure, 1996: Pocket Books.

Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, Donald Dinkmyer, 1980: American Guidance Service.

Discipline That Works, Thomas Gordon, 1991: Plume Penguin.

Discipline with Dignity, Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler, 1988: ASCD.

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Ph.D, with Joan Declaire, 1997: Simon and Schuster.

Helping Your Child Handle Stress, Katharine C. Kesey, Ed.D., 1995: Berkeley Publishing Group.

Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, 1991: Harper.

The Case Against Spanking: How To Discipline Your Child Without Hitting, Irwin A. Hyman, 1997: Jossey-Bass.

Raising a Thinking Child: Helping Your Young Child Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along With Others, Myrna B. Shure, 1996: Pocket Books.

Discipline That Works, Thomas Gordon, 1991: Plume Penguin.

Discipline with Dignity, Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler, 1988: ASCD.

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Ph.D, with Joan Declaire, 1997: Simon and Schuster.

Helping Your Child Handle Stress, Katharine C. Kesey, Ed.D., 1995: Berkeley Publishing Group.

Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, 1991: Harper.

Family Research Laboratory. Staff. http://www.unh.edu/frl/staff.htm

Child Trends Databank. Attitudes Towards Spanking. 2005. http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/indicators/51AttitudesTowardsSpanking.cfm

Effective discipline involves practicing empathy and “understanding how to treat your child in different stages in development to teach them how to cool down when things do get explosive,” said Dr. Vincent J. Palusci, a child abuse pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at N.Y.U. Langone.

The academy’s parenting website, HealthyChildren.org, offers tips for disciplining younger and older children. Rewarding positive behavior, using timeouts and establishing a clear relationship between behavior and consequences can all be effective strategies.

“We can’t just take away spanking,” Dr. Palusci said. “We have to give parents something to replace it with.”

The number of parents who spank their children has been on the decline. A 2013 Harris Poll of 2,286 adults surveyed online found 67 percent of parents said they had spanked their children and 33 percent had not. In 1995, however, 80 percent of parents said they had spanked their children while 19 percent said they had not.

Attitudes about spanking are also changing. Although seven in 10 adults in the United States agreed a “good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child,” according to the 2014 General Social Survey, spanking has become less popular over time.

In 1970, Fitzhugh Dodson, a clinical psychologist and best-selling author of books on parenting, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that many discipline problems could be solved by using his “pow wow approach.”

“It’s my pow, followed by his wow,” he explained, demonstrating how he would swat a child’s bottom.

“I know some books say parents shouldn’t spank, but I think it’s a mistake,” he said. “A poor mother is left with nowhere to go. She’s mad at the kid, has had it up to the eyebrows with him, and longs to give him a big smack on the behind, but she’s been told she shouldn’t. She should, and it’s good for her, because it releases her tension. And the child definitely prefers it to long parental harangues.”

Parents who hit their kids may believe that a swat “just gets their attention” or imposes old-fashioned discipline, but spanking in fact makes behavior worse than it was before and can cause long-term harm, pediatricians said Monday.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strengthened its advice against corporal punishment in update guidelines, saying it makes kids more aggressive and raises the risk of mental health issues.

American Academy of Pediatrics strengthens stance against spanking

Nov. 5, 201801:03

“Experiencing corporal punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future,” the group says in its new guidelines to pediatricians.

“There’s no benefit to spanking,” said Dr. Robert Sege of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, who helped write the guidelines.

“We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better.”

Today, @AmerAcadPeds put out a new policy against spanking. Spanking and harsh words are harmful and don’t work. Here are 10 other ways to discipline your child: https://t.co/69y8aE9dta #AAP18 pic.twitter.com/ZliESNugjL

— HealthyChildren (@healthychildren) November 5, 2018

Verbal abuse and humiliation is also counterproductive, the pediatrics group said.

“Parents, other caregivers, and adults interacting with children and adolescents should not use corporal punishment (including hitting and spanking), either in anger or as a punishment for or consequence of misbehavior, nor should they use any disciplinary strategy, including verbal abuse, that causes shame or humiliation,” the group says in the updated guidelines.

“Within a few minutes, children are often back to their original behavior. It certainly doesn’t teach children self-regulation,” Sege told NBC News.

“Techniques such as time out and other effective forms of punishment, the goal is to teach the child to regulate herself, so that she will have the ability to control and manage her own behavior. And that’s what it really is all about.”

Americans still strongly believe in beating, spanking or paddling children, both at home and in school.

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“According to a 2004 survey, approximately two-thirds of parents of young children reported using some sort of physical punishment,” the pediatrics group said.

“These parents reported that by fifth grade, 80 percent of children had been physically punished, and 85 percent of teenagers reported exposure to physical punishment, with 51 percent having been hit with a belt or similar object.”

And in 2013, a Harris Interactive poll found that 70 percent of parents agreed with the statement that “good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child,” although that’s down from 84 percent of parents in 1986.

But things are changing, Sege said.

“If you limit your surveys to people who have a child aged 5 years and younger in their homes, who are a new generation of parents, most of them don’t like to spank their children and often don’t spank their children,” he said. “We think there’s a generational shift where today’s parents are much less likely to spank their children than their parents were.”

One group studied parents in their home and found most parents did give kids a verbal warning before physically striking out. But they did not wait long. “Corporal punishment then occurred at a mean of 30 seconds later, suggesting that parents may have been ‘responding either impulsively or emotionally rather than instrumentally and intentionally,’” the pediatrics group said.

It did little good.

“The effects of corporal punishment were transient: within 10 minutes, most children (73 percent) had resumed the same behavior for which they had been punished.”

Not only does hitting kids do little good; it can worsen their long-term behavior.

“Children who experience repeated use of corporal punishment tend to develop more aggressive behaviors, increased aggression in school, and an increased risk of mental health disorders and cognitive problems,” Sege said in a statement.

Video of School Spanking Re-Ignites Debate Over Corporal Punishment

April 15, 201601:50

That held even when parents were otherwise warm and loving.

Parents who hit their children often have serious problems of their own. “Parents who suffer from depression tended to use corporal punishment more frequently. In addition, family economic challenges, mental health problems, intimate partner violence and substance abuse all are associated with increased reliance on corporal punishment,” Sege said.

“One small report suggested that parents who themselves have a history of trauma are more likely to use corporal punishment than other parents.”

So what can parents do instead?

“First, establish a positive, supporting and loving relationship with your child. Without this foundation, your child has no reason, other than fear, to demonstrate good behavior,” the AAP advises.

“Second, use positive reinforcement to increase the behavior you want from your child.”

Time outs work very well for younger children, the group said. “Discipline older children by temporarily removing favorite privileges, such as sports activities or playing with friends. If you have questions about disciplining your children, talk with your pediatrician,” it advises.

Pediatricians will almost always recommend discipline that does not include hitting children, or forcing them to eat spices, washing their mouths out with soap or other abusive punishments. Only 6 percent of the 787 US pediatricians surveyed in 2016 approved of spanking, and only 2.5 percent actually expected it to do any good.

The American Psychological Association says positive reinforcement is more effective than spanking.

“Positive reinforcement for alternative behaviors is extremely effective,” it says.

Spanking Harms Children, According to the American Academy of Pediatrics

Parents should not spank their children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said Monday, in an updated policy statement on the effects of corporal punishment.

Spanking as a form of discipline in young children leads to increased aggression and does not go very far in teaching responsibility and self-control, the AAP says, also noting the harmful effects of verbal abuse. The policy statement, which will be presented at the AAP’s 2018 National Conference & Exhibition, details that the use of corporal punishment can have a negative effect on the relationship between a parent and a child.

“Experiencing corporal punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future,” the group writes in the statement. “Spanking alone is associated with adverse outcomes, and those outcomes are similar to those in children who experience physical abuse.”

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According to the AAP, spanking does not lead to improved behavior over time. The group cites a study which found that children who were spanked more than twice a month at age 3 were more aggressive when they were 5. By the time they were 9, those children continued to exhibit negative behaviors and lower receptive vocabulary scores.

The AAP advises parents to rely on healthier forms of discipline, such as using positive reinforcement, setting limits and making future expectations clear. The group recommends against using spanking, threats, humiliation or insults to punish children.

“There’s no benefit to spanking,” said Dr. Robert Sege, one of the authors, said in the statement. “We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better.”

The statement is an update to the AAP’s previous stance on corporal punishment, issued in 1998, which read, “Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.”

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Write to Mahita Gajanan at [email protected]