Spanking or slapping your children may increase the odds that they will develop mental health issues that plague them in adulthood, a new study suggests.
Researchers in Canada found that up to 7% of a range of mental health disorders were associated with physical punishment, including spanking, shoving, grabbing or hitting, during childhood.
"We're not talking about just a tap on the bum," said study author Tracie Afifi, an assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. "We were looking at people who used physical punishment as a regular means to discipline their children."
Corporal punishment was associated with increased odds of anxiety and mood disorders, including major depression, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia and social phobia. Several personality disorders and alcohol and drug abuse were also linked to physical punishment, the researchers found.
"What's really important is to know that spanking and other forms of physical punishment come at a cost," said Afifi. "Physical punishment should not be used on children at any age under any circumstances."
Mental health of spanked kids measured
While the study finds an association between physical punishment and mental illness, it does not prove that one causes the other.
Previous studies have linked physical punishment to aggression in children, delinquency and emotional, developmental and behavioural impairment. But this study examined its effects on mental health in the absence of more severe physical abuse, sexual abuse or other forms of neglect and mistreatment.
For the study, published online in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers used 2004-2005 data on about 34,000 individuals aged 20 or older gathered from the US National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Participants were questioned face-to-face and asked, on a scale of "never" to "very often," how often they were ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by their parents or another adult living their home. Those who reported "sometimes" or greater were considered as having experienced harsh physical punishment.
About 6% of respondents were considered to have suffered harsh physical punishment. Boys, blacks and those from more educated, more affluent families were most likely to report such abuse, the researchers said.
The researchers adjusted the data to take into account socio-demographic factors and any family history of dysfunction.
Harsh discipline negatively affects kids
Thirty-two countries prohibit physical punishment of children by parents or caregivers, but the practise is legal in the United States and Canada, according to background information in the study. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against the use of physical punishment as a form of child discipline.
Nevertheless, the researchers say a survey of US adults showed that 48% of respondents reported a history of harsh physical punishment without more severe abuse. A 2010 University of North Carolina study revealed that nearly 80% of preschool children in the United States are spanked.
Some experts support the notion that harsh discipline can negatively affect kids but express concerns about the specific implications of this new study.
"While it's a well-done study, looking at a national data sample, there are limitations in the way the study was done," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY. "There are limitations to relying on adults recalling childhood experiences, and it's hard to control for familial psychopathology."
Adesman added that while the research reinforces that there are now more good reasons not to use physical punishment, "we can't infer that physical punishment leads to major psychological disorders."
Still, Adesman said the public needs more education about the dangers of physical punishment to children and the alternatives that parents can effectively use.
"There's a general presumption that parenting comes naturally, but there are things people need to learn. We have PSAs [public service announcements] about all kinds of health issues, but I've yet to hear any tips for providing non-physical punishment to children."
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on disciplining children.
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