Evidence mounts against spanking children

Child abuse has long been linked to a greater risk of various mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and suicidal behavior. A new study indicates that even in the absence of severe neglect and abuse, harsh physical punishment such as spanking increases a child’s risk of developing long-lasting mental health problems.

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced the findings in a July 2 press release:

Spanking Linked to Mental Illness

The use of physical punishment to discipline children has been linked to a range of mental health problems and is strongly opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, in surveys a significant number of American parents report spanking or slapping their children. The study, “Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative U.S. Sample,” in the August 2012 Pediatrics (published online July 2), examined whether harsh physical punishment, such as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping or hitting, is linked to mental disorders even in the absence of more severe child maltreatment (i.e., physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or exposure to intimate partner violence). Researchers in Canada examined data from a U.S. epidemiologic survey from 2004 to 2005. Harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and several personality disorders. Researchers found 2 percent to 7 percent of mental disorders were attributable to physical punishment. Study authors conclude pediatricians and other health care providers who work with children and parents should be aware of the link between physical punishment and mental disorders. From a public health perspective, study authors conclude reducing physical punishment may help decrease the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.

The abstract for the article in Pediatrics is here, and the full text can be downloaded for free here (pdf). The authors used data collected in 2004 and 2005 as part of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. After “adjusting for sociodemographic variables and family history of dysfunction,” researchers found that “Harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders.”

Many parents feel confident in physically punishing their children, since they may have “turned out fine” despite being spanked sometimes by their own parents. Most parents who occasionally spank are not abusive. However, research has shown that spanking isn’t an effective form of discipline for children.

in a new study published in Pediatrics, researchers at Tulane University provide the strongest evidence yet that children’s short-term response to spanking may make them act out more in the long run. Of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.

The study, led by community-health-sciences professor Catherine Taylor, was the first to control for a host of issues affecting the mother, such as depression, alcohol and drug use, spousal abuse and even whether she considered abortion while pregnant with the child. After controlling for all these factors – each of which can contribute to a child’s aggression – spanking remained a strong predictor of violent behavior. “The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 increased by 50% if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began,” says Taylor.

The association remained even after her team accounted for varying levels of natural aggression in children, suggesting, she says, that “it’s not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked.”

Among mothers surveyed in 20 cities when their children were both 3 and 5 years old, nearly half (45.6%) reported not spanking their 3-year-olds in the previous month, 27.9% reported spanking once or twice that month, and 26.5% reported spanking more than twice. As 5-year-olds, the children who had been spanked were more likely than the nonspanked to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals.

The reason for this may be that spanking sets up a loop of bad behavior. Corporal punishment instills fear rather than understanding. Even if children stop tantrums when spanked, that doesn’t mean they get why they shouldn’t have been acting up in the first place. What’s more, spanking sets a bad example, teaching children that aggressive behavior is a solution to their parents’ problems.

A review of many studies published earlier this year reached similar conclusions:

An analysis of research on physical punishment of children over the past 20 years indicates that such punishment is potentially harmful to their long-term development, states an article in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Over the past 20 years, a growing body of research clearly indicates that children who have experienced physical punishment tend to be more aggressive toward parents, siblings, peers and, later, spouses, and are more likely to develop antisocial behaviour.

“Virtually without exception, these studies found that physical punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression against parents, siblings, peers and spouses,” write Dr. Joan Durrant, Department of Family Social Sciences, University of Manitoba, and Ron Ensom, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

In a trial of an intervention designed to reduce difficult behaviour in children, when parents in more than 500 families were trained to reduce their use of physical punishment, the difficult behaviours in the children also declined.

“Results consistently suggest that physical punishment has a direct causal effect on externalizing behaviour, whether through a reflexive response to pain, modeling or coercive family processes,” write the authors.

Physical punishment is also associated with a variety of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and use of drugs and alcohol.


Some parents don’t believe in physical punishment but occasionally resort to spanking out of frustration or desperation. This blog post by a spanking mom is an honest, heartfelt exploration of why the author sometimes uses discipline techniques she emphatically doesn’t believe in.

All children need parents to set limits. The Center for Effective Discipline compiled many links here about non-violent, effective forms of discipline. The Center for Nonviolent Communication and the Perpetual Preschool site are also good resources.

Nancy Samalin, Becky Bailey, Judy Arnall, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Lawrence Cohen, and the team of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have all written good books about discipline.  

About the Author(s)