Study Finds Link between Spanking and Mental Health Problems in Adulthood

Posted July 10, 2012 by

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A recent study published in the Journal Pediatrics examined the link between physical punishment and mental health outcomes in adult life.  The study defined physical punishment as “slapping, pushing, hitting, grabbing or shoving” by a parent or other adult living in the home, and looked at those respondents who stated that they experienced this with occasional or greater frequency before the age of 18.  The study excluded those who indicated that they also experienced more severe types of abuse, such as physical punishments that left marks or injuries, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and/or physical or emotional neglect.  The researchers showed that adults who experienced physical punishments were more likely to be diagnosed with a variety of mental health conditions in adulthood, such as depression, mania, mood disorders, alcohol use/dependence, substance use/dependence and anxiety disorders.  It also showed that experiencing physical punishments was associated with an increase in the diagnosis of certain personality disorders as well.

As a result of this study, the authors recommend looking at practices such as spanking as a public health issue, and encouraged associations such as the American Association of Pediatrics to strengthen their stance against all forms of physical punishments and promote other parenting practices such as positive reinforcement.

Here on the 1-on-1 Coaching team, we realize that many parents do use spanking and physical punishments with their children.  A quick, non-scientific poll on our Facebook page shows that many of our readers agree that spanking is acceptable, and a technique to show your child boundaries and consequences for their actions.  We discourage parents from using physical punishments for a few different reasons.  First, we find that when parents use methods such as spanking, situations tend to escalate rather than calm down.  When things are heated between you and your child, the focus should be on composing yourself and helping your child to do the same, rather than getting your child to comply at all costs.

James Lehman reminds us that children with behavior problems act out because they have not learned more effective ways of solving their problems.  Children who are spanked are not learning alternative ways of behaving.  While you might get immediate compliance in the moment, your child is not learning what he or she can do differently the next time a similar situation arises.

We also talk a lot about the importance of modeling the behavior you would like to see in your child.  Spanking is not an effective problem-solving technique to model for your child.  If you slap your child for their poor behavior, you are modeling that it is OK to hit someone when they are not behaving the way you want them to, which may lead to increased aggression in your child.

We are dedicated to helping parents achieve positive outcomes with their families using tried-and-true methods of behavior modification such as positive reinforcement, and teaching replacement behaviors.  We advocate problem solving and accountability techniques because they are effective life skills for your child to learn with few negative results.  We believe that this is truly the way to empower parents!


Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated 1-on-1 Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.

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  1. Porsche Sunglasses Report

    I was raised with an occasional spanking when I did something that I knew it was wrong. I don’t think that is bad as long as you don’t abuse your child, I think a random light spanking can go a long way when dealing with rebellious children.

  2. Dale Sadler Report

    I agree that positive parenting tactics are much more desirable and effective long-term. If all you’re doing is spanking, then you need some better skills. However, I find anti-spanking studies like this one to be too broad and they often, by their design and proclamation, mislead people. You can say anything you want with statistics.

    It is broad in that they lump spanking with “slapping, pushing, hitting, grabbing or shoving.” My goodness. I would never do those last five. Never. But I do spank, although rarely. Too much needs to be taught through things like natural and logical consequences and positive reinforcement which I truly believe in. However, sometimes talking and positive reinforcement will not work when the child is smart enough to work the system. “Give me a reward and I’ll do what you ask.” OR “Counting to five before you do something, mom? OK, I have four more seconds to disobey.” If this is the case, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

    How are these studies misleading? As I stated before, spanking is lumped with other more serious forms of violence. Also, everyone targets spanking but sometimes fail to mention the other forms of violence defined. Shoving a seven year old to the floor for spilling milk should not be equated with me swatting my two-year-old’s leg for disobeying or not listening. Spankings get attention when other tactics fail.

    In homes where spanking is the only form of discipline, there’s probably a lot more dysfunction that can be found that would lead to “depression, mania, mood disorders, alcohol use/dependence, substance use/dependence and anxiety disorders.” It can be said that parents who raise children into adults with these problems do spank. It’s not necessarily true that, “spanking causes these problems” although this conclusion is often derived from people who read such studies, therefore it is misleading. Tracie Afifi, who is the author of the study acknowledged, “it’s not a causal effect and the study design can’t prove the link, but she said the statistical association is clear.” Association is much different than causality.

    I think spanking is a last resort and does often get used too quickly. I am just not willing to say that it should never be used, especially when it is equated in a study with grabbing and slapping.



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