The American Academy of Paediatrics has issued its most strongly worded statement to date advising against spanking and corporal punishment towards children.
Mental health professionals are echoing the call, saying spanking is an ineffective way of changing behaviours in children, and can end up doing more harm than good.
“We’ve known for a long time that there are better ways to change behavior than punishment of any kind,” Dr. Shane Owens, a psychologist and parenting expert told Healthline.
The Academy’s update to its policy on spanking refreshes the twenty year old guidance set out by the organisation that suggests parents should be “encouraged and assisted” towards other forms of punishment other than spanking.
In the period since those guidelines were developed a number of studies have suggested that not only is spanking ineffective but also can result in worsened behaviour in children.
Dr. Owens says spanking can result in a variety of problems for a child, which can extend well into adulthood.
“Spanking is related to aggression and internalizing problems—things like anxiety and depression—in childhood. There is evidence that spanking is related to impaired cognitive ability in kids. In addition, it is related to overall mental health problems and antisocial behavior that start in childhood and persist into adulthood,” he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends other forms of discipline considered to be more mentally and physically healthy. They advise against spanking, hitting or slapping of any kind, as well as against any sort of action that could be considered shaming, insulting, threatening or humiliating.
Instead of such forms of punishment, experts suggest positive reinforcement, outlining future expectation around appropriate behaviour, redirecting children where appropriate and setting limits.
Corporal punishment can lead to increased aggression among children of pre-school or school age, and the use of corporal punishment like spanking increases the likelihood children will be aggressive or defiant later in life.
Children who are spanked are more likely to experience adverse outcomes, similar to children who experience physical abuse in the home.
Punishments like spanking or other violent acts are more likely to be used in a family or living situation with stressors whether that be through substance abuse, domestic violence, economic hardship or mental health problems.
Dr. Owens says spanking can also have a significantly negative impact on the bond between parents and children.
“The relationship between spanking and a negative parent-child relationship is among the strongest reported in the meta-analysis. In early development, the relationship between a child and her parent is her whole universe. It is how she learns everything she knows. In many—if not most—cases, the relationship a kid has with her parents is the most vital and influential relationship she’ll ever have. Having a negative relationship with mom or dad will have lasting consequences for a kid’s health and happiness,” he said.
Owens argues spanking and punishment of children can be a sensitive subject, especially due to different approaches between generations.
“Purely based on the numbers reported, many parents were spanked as children, so hearing that it shouldn’t be done discounts their experience, especially if they are happy and healthy. Professionals must approach the issue of punishment carefully, remembering to validate parents’ experiences while recommending more effective ways to discipline kids,” he said.
“Almost everyone knows someone who was spanked who grew into a talented, accomplished, loving, well-adjusted adult. Weighing the risks with the benefit, and given the other methods we know to be effective, spanking is not worth the risk,” Owens told Thervavive.
At the heart of the issue of spanking, Owens says, is that punishment of any kind is only teaching children what not to do in any given situation. Discipline through punishment does not offer opportunities for better behaviour or for independent problem solving on the part of the child.
This is why spanking can sometimes lead to the “opposite” behaviour than what was desired.
“What many mean by “opposite” is that kids will continue to do whatever they are punished for, just more covertly. Punishment doesn’t teach kids the right thing to do, only how not to behave when certain people are around,” Owens said.
Reframing the way parents and caregivers react to certain behaviours can go a long way in protecting the parent-child bond, as well as a child’s wellbeing.
“The simplest way to change kids’ behavior is to pay attention to them when they are behaving well and ignore them when they are doing something wrong, as long as the wrong behavior isn’t dangerous. Some schools have turned this basic principle into programs that “catch kids being good” and reward them for that,” Owens said.
“If a mom or dad has to stop a kid from behaving poorly, he or she must also use that opportunity to teach the kid the appropriate behavior; it’s not enough to stop bad behavior, parents must help the kid learn what to do in its place. Perhaps most importantly, parents must let kids learn from the natural consequences of their behavior, as long as those don’t put kids at risk for illness or injury.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.