There was once a time when corporal punishment was so acceptable it was even allowed in schools. Today, spanking, slapping, or otherwise punishing a child in a physical manner is not completely absent, but it is no longer the widely-accepted practice of a few decades ago. Now parents are more likely to try different types of punishments and teachers would never dare lay a hand on a student. As long as some parents still punish their kids in this way, it is important to spread the message about the potential consequences of hitting, spanking, and shoving. Thankfully, researchers have given us the evidence to prove that this type of behavior is unacceptable. It can have lasting consequences on a child’s mental and physical health.
Corporal Punishment and Mental Health
A study from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, demonstrated that children who were hit, or in some other way physically punished, were more likely than their peers to get diagnoses as adults of anxiety, personality disorders and depression. It should come as no surprise that trauma and abuse would cause mental health problems in children as they grow into adults. What makes the study novel is that the researchers discounted severe abuse and neglect. They looked only at children who were spanked or hit as punishments. The researchers believe that up to half of all children are still spanked at least occasionally, but that only a handful receive more serious maltreatment. While the maltreatment may not be severe enough to be considered abuse, the researchers now have the evidence that it is harmful. They believe that a significant proportion of the mental disorders seen in the kids from the study are directly attributable to their punishments. The adults who contributed to the study were surveyed about their treatment as children. It seems that the key to experiencing lasting mental health problems from maltreatment is remembering it. Close to 20 percent of the participants who remembered being physically punished as kids, for instance, were diagnosed with depression. Over 40 percent abused alcohol. These numbers were much lower among the participants who had no recollection of physical punishment.
Corporal Punishment and Physical Health
The research on the ill effects of physical punishments continues to grow and the evidence that it is harmful to mental health is increasing. More recently, research that proves a link to physical health has also emerged. The same researchers from the University of Manitoba extended their study to look at physical health of their participants in adulthood. The people who remembered physical punishments were more likely to have at least one chronic health condition. The adults with memories of hitting and shoving were 25 percent more likely to have arthritis and 28 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease. More people who remembered physical punishment were obese than among those who did not. The study authors believe their findings are important, but are quick to point out that the exact cause of the discrepancies is still not understood. Some possibilities include increased risk-taking behaviors, changes in the immune system, stress, or changes in sleep that could result from corporal punishment and cause later health problems.
The growing proof that corporal punishment causes long-term harm should give parents food for thought. The researchers who find out these links between hitting and mental and physical health do not advocate for less discipline of children. They do, however, point out that physical punishment may cause long-term harm. Not all children who remember being punished in this way end up with a mental disorder or a chronic illness, but they are more likely to, and that is significant. Because of this increased risk, parents should consider more positive discipline methods. Some governments are even being urged to step in and insist that parents stop spanking and hitting as punishment. In Australia, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians are pushing for a law to ban smacking and spanking. In Canada, the Canadian Medical Association is also pushing for changes to the law. These medical associations are pushing for change because they understand the harm that can be caused to children. They advocate for safer and more effective types of positive discipline, such as timeouts, tactics using diversion, and establishing better communication between parents and children. They also call on doctors around the world to better screen for abuse and maltreatment of children. They encourage pediatricians to start discussions with parents about positive discipline methods. When discipline starts to change, children and parents alike will see the benefits.