The Web Log of Jon Henshaw

Physical punishment linked to mental disorders

Written by , published on and related to πŸ‘¨β€πŸ‘©β€πŸ‘§β€πŸ‘¦ Parenting


My wife and I were spanked as kids – me more than her πŸ™ – and we seem to have turned out as relatively healthy adults. Of course, neither of us liked being spanked, and I never took well to it. Even as I near 40-years-old, I have vivid memories of being spanked, not understanding it, and hating every moment of it.

We have two children, and we chose early on to not spank them. The main reason is that we have 18 years to prepare them to become independent adults, and there’s no place in our society where physically hurting another person to get your way is acceptable, let alone legal. If we’re to do our job as parents, we’re to find a way – as adults – to discipline and guide them towards more acceptable behavior without hitting them.

Now it appears there’s another good reason to not inflict physical pain on your child. A new study has been released that suggests physical punishment is linked to mental disorders in adulthood. Researchers in the American Academy of Pediatrics reported:

Results: Harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders after adjusting for sociodemographic variables and family history of dysfunction (adjusted odds ratio: 1.36–2.46). Approximately 2% to 5% of Axis I disorders and 4% to 7% of Axis II disorders were attributable to harsh physical punishment.

Conclusions: Harsh physical punishment in the absence of child maltreatment is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders in a general population sample. These findings inform the ongoing debate around the use of physical punishment and provide evidence that harsh physical punishment independent of child maltreatment is related to mental disorders.

The study defined harsh physical punishment as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting. So an argument could be made that this doesn’t affect children who are spanked. Especially, if the spanking is done in a controlled, quasi-loving manner. However, I would personally add spanking to the list if it’s done out of anger, including quick pops or demeaning spanking.

Hitting another human being creates emotional distress (regardless of the severity) and inflicting pain on an adult in order to get your way is unacceptable in our society. So why in the world would it be okay to do (and thus teach) children it’s okay to hurt them to get our way? If your answer includes tradition, “I turned out okay” or religion, then you probably haven’t thought very deeply about this, and you probably should.

Update 1/12/2018: David Roberts wrote on Vox about how spaning doesn’t work, and it teaches all the wrong lessons. He writes:

There are two basic arguments. The first is drawn from social science, which shows that spanking does not work to produce better behavior or healthier kids. The second is a moral argument, about violence and what it does and doesn’t teach children.

Since I originally wrote this article in 2012, a lot of research has come out from studies about spanking. Some of the research cited in the article includes:

One of the best parts of the article was something that’s actionable for parents as an alternative to spanking:

  1. Get Calm
  2. Take Time for Yourself
  3. Be Kind but Firm
  4. Give Choices
  5. Use Logical Consequences
  6. Do Make Ups
  7. Withdraw from Conflict
  8. Use kind but firm action
  9. Inform Children Ahead of Time

You can read more about what those actions mean on Kathryn Kvol’s article, 9 Things to do Instead of Spanking.