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Study: Spanking can lead to mental illness

  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • Published Monday, July 2, 2012, at 2:29 p.m.

Parents today receive differing advice about how to raise their children. But one piece of wisdom is increasingly consistent: Spanking is almost never the right way to discipline your child, according to doctors and most child development experts.

When Jennifer Chianese, a pediatrician at Children’s Community Pediatrics who practices in Cranberry and Squirrel Hill, advises parents not to spank, she tells them it is ineffective and can have negative psychological consequences.

And those effects can be long term: According to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, adults who were spanked as children are more likely to develop mental disorders, including depression and substance abuse problems.

“There’s still a socially accepted belief that … you should use physical force and shouldn’t be too ‘lenient’ on your children,” said Tracie Afifi, an epidemiologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada and lead author of the study. Though 32 countries have abolished a parent’s right to use physical punishment, it is still legal to hit children in the United States and Canada, the study shows.

Chianese recalled speaking to a family recently whose church had given out wooden paddles for spankings. But in all cases, Chianese said she recommends against spankings.

About 94 percent of parents polled across the country in 1968 — when some of the study’s participants would have been growing up — thought spanking was necessary, said Murray Straus, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire who was not involved in this most recent study. By 2006 a similar study showed roughly 70 percent of parents thought spanking school-age children was acceptable. But Straus added that 90 percent of parents still thought spanking a toddler was sometimes necessary. Parents are spanking less frequently, he said, but they’re still doing it.

Monday’s study in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, polled nearly 35,000 adults over the age of 20 between 2004 and 2005. In face-to-face interviews, respondents were asked to recall from their childhood if they were hit, grabbed, pushed or experienced other physical punishment. Afifi said the study excluded instances of sexual abuse or “severe physical abuse” — defined as anything that left a mark or caused injury.

But even non-abusive physical punishments left a psychological marker long afterward, the study showed. Those who experienced physical punishment were as much as 7 percent more likely to experience mental disorders. There were about 5 percent more people with mania among respondents who were physically punished, and around 3 percent more people with substance abuse problems in the group that was punished.

And effects of spanking can show up even earlier. George Holden, a vocal anti-spanking advocate and professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said children who are spanked are more likely to bully their peers.

Even the threat of spanking might be harmful, said Deborah Gilboa, a mother of four and a physician at Squirrel Hill Health Center.

“Living with fear has negative consequences. We know that kids can grow up to be adults with PTSD if they live with true fear,” she said, referring to post-traumatic stress syndrome. She added that joking about punishment is fine — as long as there is no true intent to hit children.

“I occasionally threaten to hang my kids by their toenails and whip them with wet spaghetti. When I say that kind of thing, I’m not actually mad.”

Spanking is ingrained into some families’ daily lives, Gilboa said. Many studies, including Straus’ work in New Hampshire, have shown that African-American families spank more than those in other racial groups. Churches endorsing physical punishment — such as the one providing paddles to Chianese’s patients — are not uncommon; past studies have shown that spanking decreases as the education and income levels of a family increase.

However, the study published today shows the opposite trend: Spanking was more common the higher a family’s income level was.

Afifi attributed the difference to the exclusion of child abuse victims from the study. Usually, such abuse is more prevalent in lower-income households, but non-abusive spanking continues in middle- and upper-middle-class families.

Koren Boggs, a pediatric behavioral psychologist at UPMC, said: “It would be misinformed to say it only occurs in low-income families of a particular ethnic or racial makeup.”

Most of the researchers interviewed said that positive rewards and communication are a better way of instilling morals and good behavior in children. All of them agreed that spanking should be used rarely, if at all. Gilboa said use of a spank, if done once a year at most, in a high-risk situation can be effective — like when a child runs into the street or “dangles their little brother out of a window.”

Robert Larzelere, a professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, is one of spanking’s few defenders. He said a swat on the bottom can effectively correct bad behavior when used sparingly. But Holden, the anti-spanking advocate, said it is hard to draw the line between when to spank and when not to spank — and most people who do spank are not doing it so rarely.

Boggs said sometimes parents become desperate to control their children’s behavior and spank out of exasperation. But she and most of the other researchers said it still doesn’t provide a lasting fix.

“There’s no question that physical punishment makes the child stop doing what he or she is doing in the immediate. But it comes at a cost,” Holden said, citing the psychological and behavioral consequences.

“Use of corporal punishment is hitting a child, which is infringement upon their human right not to be hit.”

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