"Spare the rod; spoil the child" was a fairly common attitude that many parents took to heart. Spanking was the way you disciplined a misbehaving child - even if the child wasn't capable of understanding what they were doing wrong. Over the years, spanking has declined some in popularity. A just released twenty-year study reveals the long-term harmful effect that spanking or slapping has on a child's development.
The study found that children who were spanked as an everyday physical punishment were more aggressive against parents, siblings, peers and spouses.
The authors also noted that physical punishment is linked to various mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. What's more, recent neuroimaging studies have shown that physical punishment may alter parts of the brain that are linked to performance on IQ tests and increase vulnerability to drug or alcohol dependence, they write.
"I think it's important for parents to understand that although physical punishment might get a child to do something in the immediate situation, there are many side effects that can develop over the long term," said co-author Joan Durrant, a child clinical psychologist at Family Social Sciences at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
"For example, the more often a child sees a parent respond to conflict or frustration with slapping or spanking, the more likely that child will do the same when confronting their own conflicts," Durrant said.
Research has shown that since the 1970s, spanking has declined in the United States, but many parents still believe it's an acceptable form of punishment. A recent University of North Carolina study revealed that nearly 80 percent of preschool children are spanked. Parents who believe in spanking say they are skeptical of published studies and question whether it might be the aggressive behavior that prompts the spanking - not the other way around.
"It is the case that children who are more aggressive do tend to get hit more, but the punishment does not reduce those children's aggression; rather, it exacerbates it," said Ron Ensom, who worked as a social worker at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, in Ottawa, when the paper was written.
"When parents of aggressive children are instructed in how to reduce their use of spanking, and they do indeed reduce it, the level of their children's aggression declines," Ensom said. "And when children who all have the same level of aggression when the study begins are followed over a period of years, those who are spanked tend to get more aggressive over time, while those who are not spanked tend to get less aggressive."
Some parents and caregivers automatically use spanking as a way to stop a certain behavior in their children. Mary Alvord, a child clinical psychologist in private practice in Rockville and Silver Spring, Md., says she thinks the authors did a good job in summarizing the research but wishes they had offered parents more workable alternative approaches to discipline. "I just wish they had taken the next step and given the doctors more tools to show parents what to do, rather than focusing so much on what they shouldn't do."
"Parents often feel helpless in these situations, and they want their child to get the message that what they did is wrong," Alvord said. "So I don't get preachy with parents, but I try to explain that there are so many more effective things that parents can do, like timeouts."
The study is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
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