Sparing the rod, doesn't spoil the child — it saves them. A new study shows use of the rod or any of its variations (slapping, spanking) increases a child's risk of lifelong mental problems. Experts suggest other methods like "time outs" instead.
"People believe that as long as you don't cross that line into child maltreatment, and the physical punishment is controlled and doesn't cross the line into abuse, it won't have any negative long-term consequences for the child," said epidemiologist Dr. Tracie O. Afifi, the lead researcher of the study and an assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, according to Reuters.
"The way we see it is along a continuum of having no violence to severe violence," Afifi said.
Lisa Berlin, who studies parenting and child maltreatment at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore put it this way: "We know that maltreatment is traumatic, but I think the point here is that even harmful parenting behaviors that may not be classified as maltreatment per se have this association with (mental) disorders," Yahoo writes.
Parents' right to use physical punishment
Parents' right to use physical punishment has been abolished in 32 nations, but not in the USA or Canada, says the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment, endorsed by the United Nations and others.
And several national medical organizations have taken stands against corporal punishment by parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason, and the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that physicians strongly discourage the use of physical punishment.
But despite these developments, physical punishment (such as spanking, pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting) remains a commonly used method of discipline in the United States and is considered socially acceptable by many caregivers, Afifi and colleagues reported.
What's the connection?
So how could it be that physical punishment increases risk of mental problems? One possibility, Afifi and her team wrote, is that the experience of physical punishment, even if not “physically abusive,” may generate chronic stress in children through experiences of anxiety, fear, and shame, which could then increase their chance of developing depression or anxiety later on.
Michele Knox, a psychiatrist who studies family and youth violence at the University of Toledo College of Medicine, agreed that's a likely explanation, .
"Physical punishment is a chronic and sometimes repeated stressor for young people, and we know that chronic and repeated stressors have a negative impact on the brain," Knox, who wasn't part of the research team, told Reuters Health.
Knox added, "Spanking and other forms of corporal punishment have a huge variety of negative outcomes, and almost no positive outcomes." Those negative outcomes include aggressive behavior and delinquency in kids, she added.
There was one positive result of spanking that Dr. Afifi identified: quick compliance with parental demands.
But after analyzing six decades of expert research on corporal punishment, psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, told the New York Times parents who spank their children risk long-term harm that outweighs the short-term benefit of instant obedience.
Physical punishment and mental disorders
So the study, "Physical punishment and mental disorders," published online in the journal Pediatrics, set out to determine two things:
1. If a history of physical punishment increases the likelihood of having Axis I and II mental disorders.
•mood disorder ( i.e Major depression)
•anxiety disorder (i.e posttraumatic stress disorder)
Axis II: personality disorders
•cluster A (paranoid,schizoid, schizotypal)
•cluster B (antisocial, histrionic, borderline, narcissistic)
•cluster C (avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive)2. What proportion of mental disorders in the general population could be due to physical punishment.
To accomplish this mission, Afifi and colleagues analyzed data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, conducted between 2004 and 2005, which included 34,653 adults, 20 or older, and asked about current mental conditions, as well as the past incidence of physical punishments.
Afifi and her colleagues made sure not to include anyone who reported being physically, sexually or emotionally abused by family members so that the findings would focus solely on the effects of physical punishment (also referred to as spanking, smacking, and corporal punishment) or acts of hitting a child in the name of discipline.
In interviews, participants were asked: "As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?"
Participants who answered "sometimes," "fairly often" or "very often" were punished physically as kids and were more likely to have mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse dependence, and several personality disorders, according to MedPage Today.
As for the study's second objective, up to 7% of mental disorders were related to physical punishment in childhood. "This type of punishment was associated with poor mental outcomes and several mental disorders almost uniformly across the board," Afifi and colleagues said.
They were surprised to find that "increases in education and income were associated with elevated odds of harsh physical punishment," the researchers wrote.
All in all, the findings "provide evidence that harsh physical punishment independent of child maltreatment is related to mental disorders," Afifi wrote, adding that "physical punishment should not be used on any child, at any age."
Spanking does a child good
But not all family researchers see a problem with spanking.They argue that spanking, used properly, can be appropriate discipline.
"Certainly, overly severe physical punishment is going to have adverse effects on children," psychologist Robert Larzelere, of Oklahoma State University, Stillwater told USA Today. "But for younger kids, if spanking is used in the most appropriate way and the child perceives it as being motivated by concern for their behavior and welfare, then I don't think it has a detrimental effect."
They cautioned that the data was retrospective, which means that results depended on childhood memories from the adult which may or may not be reliable, critics say.
Larzelere criticized the study's reliance on memories of events from years earlier, and says it's not clear when punishment occurred. "The motivation that the child perceives and when and how and why the parent uses (spanking) makes a big difference. All of that is more important than whether it was used or not."
Nevertheless, Afifi stands by their data: "we're confident of the reliability of our data, and the data strongly indicate that physical punishment should not be used on children — at any age. And it's important for parents to be aware of that."
Alternative discipline strategies
But it's not enough just to tell parents that harsh physical punishment is harmful, WebMD reports. Parents need to know how to discipline their children. Many positive approaches to parenting and discipline reinforce good behavior.
The authors write: Parents can make an agreement even before their child is born to never use physical punishment, and instead rely on methods like "time out" and using positive reinforcement to reward good behavior.
Gershoff, a researcher at Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, who spent five years analyzing 88 studies of corporal punishment conducted since 1938, put a new twist on "time outs" saying it's the parent who should go to time out.
''When they're in a situation where they're considering spanking,'' she said in an interview, The Times reports, parents should ''think of something else to do -- leave the room, count to 10 and come back again.''
"Americans need to re-evaluate why we believe it is reasonable to hit young, vulnerable children, when it is against the law to hit other adults, prisoners and even animals," Gershoff said.