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Spanking Children Linked With Mental Health Problems in Adulthood

Spanking is linked with increased risks of developing anti-social behaviour, mental health problems, aggression, and disrupted cognition, says a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.


A meta-analysis of studies spanning over 5 decades has been conducted by researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Michigan to evaluate the effects of spanking on children in their later years. It is described as the “most complete analysis” of its kind that has been done until now; it includes data obtained on over 160,000 children. It is to be noted that, apart from spanking, the research papers also dealt with other forms of physical punishment.

How is spanking defined? According to author Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences, their study focuses on spanking that would be recognised by the majority of Americans (defined as an “open-handed hit on the behind or extremities“), and not on what could be abusive behaviours.

Gershoff explains that while parents intend for their children to comply to their instructions by spanking them, the latter do not do so – not in the immediate or long term – and, on the contrary, they bear “unintended detrimental outcomes”.

The results show a significant correlation between spanking and 13 of 17 detrimental outcomes in adulthood, namely anti-social behaviour, mental health problems, and the likes. Also, this situation builds up a vicious cycle: the more these children were spanked, the more likely were they to advocate physical punishment for their own offspring; thus, this attitude is passed on from generation to generation.

What is interesting is that this trend of negative outcomes resulting from spanking is seen throughout the different types of studies analysed by the researchers. What is worse is that parents would persistently do this despite the fact that no evidence exists to support spanking; rather, proof about the potential harms on children is made clear by researchers. Furthermore, these negative consequences are similar to those of physical abuse.

“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” says Gershoff. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

She adds that they hope their study can serve as education for parents about the harmful consequences of spanking so that they can take to positive modes of disciplining their children.


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