Physical Punishment Could Lead To Mental Disorders In Some Children
July 2, 2012

Physical Punishment Could Lead To Mental Disorders In Some Children

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Children who are spanked, slapped, grabbed and pushed as a means of physical punishment may be at an increased risk for developing emotional problems later in life, according to findings from a new study to be published in the August issue of Pediatrics.

Non-abusive physical punishment may be different than physical and sexual abuse or neglect, but researchers say it still has lasting repercussions on child development, which may cause anxiety disorders or lead to alcohol and drug abuse.

Lead author Tracie Afifi, an epidemiologist at the University of Manitoba, and her colleagues were the first to examine the link between psychological problems and non-abusive physical punishment. They excluded physical and sexual abuse in order to better gauge the effect of corporal punishment alone.

Afifi noted her team found a significant link between physical punishment and an increased likelihood of mental disorders. About 2 to 7 percent of mental disorders in the study were linked to physical punishment of some kind, she added.

The right to administer physical punishment has been abolished in more than 30 countries, yet continues to be allowed in the USA and Canada, the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment noted, endorsed by the United Nations.

Despite no bans on physical punishment in the US and Canada, two groups have recommendations in place discouraging the behavior. 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.

In the study, Afifi and her colleagues analyzed data from a government survey of more then 34,000 non-institutionalized adults in the US, collected between 2004 and 2005. About 1,300 of those who responded to the survey, all over the age of 20, said they experienced some form of physical punishment as children. They reported that they had been “pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house.”

That figure may seem considerably low, especially since nearly half of the US population recalls being spanked as a child, but nevertheless shows that physical punishment can increase the risk of problems later in life, experts said.

“The study is valuable because it opens the conversation about parenting,” Victor Fornari, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York, told Kerry Sheridan at AFP.

Fornari, who was not involved in the study, said the rate “is not dramatically higher, but it is higher, just to suggest that physical punishment is a risk factor for developing more mental disturbances as an adult.”

Despite Afifi´s findings, some family researchers argue that spanking, when 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℠s Michelle Healy. “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.”

While the study rules out the most severe cases of physical punishment, “it does nothing to move beyond correlations to figure out what is actually causing the mental health problems,” argued Larzelere.

He 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.”

Afifi acknowledged that it is difficult to change people´s mind on this topic, but said her team is confident of the reliability of the data gleaned, 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.”

There are other age-appropriate ways to discipline children, said Afifi. She recommends positive reinforcement, or rewarding good behaviors, as opposed to punishing bad ones. “It is really important to make sure that what you are doing is appropriate for that age or development level,” she said.

Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children´s Medical Center of New York in Lake Success, NY, said it isn´t enough just to tell parents that harsh physical punishment is harmful; parents need to know how to discipline their children. This starts with setting clear expectations with clear consequences.

Time-outs can be effective in preschool- and grade-school-aged children, he said. “A good rule of thumb is one minute for every year of age“¦ Time-outs should occur in a safe, central location where the child can be observed,” he noted.

“Sending your child to his or her room is not a time-out,” Adesman remarked. Also, “don´t engage or negotiate with a child when he or she is in time-out. It´s a time for quiet reflection.”

Afifi hopes the findings from the study will make parents think twice before they decide to physically punish their children again.

“It is important for pediatricians and other health-care providers who work with children and parents to be aware of the link between physical punishment and mental disorders based on the study,” Afifi's team concluded.

Roya Samuels, a pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York, said the parents' genes may also influence their response to raising an unruly child as well as their likelihood of passing down certain ailments.

“Parents who are resorting to mechanisms of corporal punishment might themselves be at risk for depression and mental disorders; therefore, there might be a hereditary factor going on in these families,” she told AFP.