To spank—or not to spank? Most people already know where they stand on the issue. But what if you learned that spanking your child put him at greater risk for mental illness later in life? That's the question parents are facing after a new study showing a link between corporal discipline and certain mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, was made public last week. Here's a look at what the study found—and where experts say the great spanking debate goes from here.
As ABC News reports, researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada analyzed data from more than 34,600 US adults ages 20 and older who were surveyed between 2004 and 2005. 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?" Data suggests that nearly half of Americans would answer something other than "never"—and up to 90 percent of parents could say the same about their treatment of their own children.
At what cost? According to the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, those who were physically punished as children were 41 percent more likely to be depressed, 24 percent more likely to have panic disorder, and 9 percent more likely to have alcohol dependence, compared with those who received no physical punishments. Overall, says researchers, between 2 and 7 percent of all mental disorders among adults could be linked to physical punishment that occurred during childhood.
The connection, says experts, is actually quite straightforward. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg, "Kids who are hit by parents become more aggressive, are likely to not have developed skills for managing emotions like anger, and may not know how to handle tricky situations in a calm and effective manner." As a result, she adds, "They may also develop fear and trust issues which are linked to depression and anxiety."
But what about that old standby often cited by parents who spank that they were spanked as a child and they turned out just fine? "They're lucky they turned out OK," maintains Dr. Greenberg, "but other people in the same position are not so lucky."
Dr. Fran Walfish, a child and family therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, believes parents who use this line to justify their decision to spank are often too afraid and guilt-ridden to express anger towards their own parent(s) for spanking them as children. "They need help with this," she says.
To mom Alyssa Tomlin of Concord, New Hampshire, who owns up to occasionally spanking her two kids, studies like this one may make headlines, and cause much debate, but in the end, don't seem to apply to moms like her. "I don't slap, push, or shove... that's physical abuse in my book. I'm sorry, but a spank on the behind is different," says Tomlin.
Parents make such distinctions all the time—on one end of the spectrum, there's extreme physical abuse (the likes of which the study did not address); on the other hand, the off-hand swat to get a child's attention; then there's the wide range of behavior that lies between. What if a spank is just a threat? What if spanking the primary form of discipline? What if a spank (or shove, or grab) is an unintentional byproduct of a parent at her wit's end? Does the context—or intent—matter?
That's something the study doesn't address.
So where does that leave parents? The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes the use of physical punishment of any kind, urging parents to seek out alternative forms of discipline instead. Some techniques to try include:
- Time-Outs: Removing a child from a negative activity and giving him some quiet time alone really can be effective in redirecting and diffusing bad behavior, says Dr. Greenberg. Just make sure your child is old enough to understand the concept of rules and consequences, something that usually occurs between the ages of 2 and 3 years old.
- Repair Work: Rather than spank a child for not sharing toys, have the child do some repair work like apologizing and maybe even doing something nice for the person they upset. "I am a big fan of repair work," says Dr. Greenberg. "It teaches empathy."
- Taking Action: If your preschooler won't get in the tub when you call because he is too enthralled with watching his favorite cartoon, wait a silent count to two, then click off the TV. "Your child will likely have an angry tantrum," says Dr. Walfish. "But better an angry child than an angry parent." Parents should then physically walk the child to his next job responsibility (for instance, to the bathroom to take a bath). "You can narrate how mad he is at you and help him calm down prepared and ready to show up to his next task—the bath. Praise every increment in your child's growth and good listening!"