Under the Hood

Should Kids Be Spanked? Experts Reveal Mental Health Consequences

Around the world, physical punishment has long been a socially acceptable form of disciplining children. While some parents use belts and canes to hit their child, others resorted to slapping or spanking them.

But attitudes appear to be changing in many communities, for the better. In the United States, the practice of spanking and hitting children has been on a decline since the late 1980s

Back in 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised pediatricians to help parents explore other forms of intervention to discourage misbehavior in children. 

Twenty years later, the group has finally taken a strong stance against the harmful form of punishment in their newly published guidelines. Spanking not only fails to impose discipline but can actually be counterproductive by making children more aggressive in the future, the AAP stated.

"There’s no benefit to spanking," said Dr. Robert Sege of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, who helped write the guidelines. "We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better."

When examining children who were physically hurt as a form of punishment, it was found they often showed an increase in aggressive behavior. They were also more likely to develop mental health disorders.

In fact, researchers believe frequent use of physical punishment could indicate poor mental health in the parents themselves. Aside from the older generation, those with lower levels of income and education were also more likely to spank their kids.

"If you limit your surveys to people who have a child aged five years and younger in their homes, who are a new generation of parents, most of them don’t like to spank their children and often don’t spank their children," Dr. Sege said. "We think there’s a generational shift where today’s parents are much less likely to spank their children than their parents were."

Along with seeking advice from a pediatrician, the guidelines do recommend alternative strategies for parents. Younger children can benefit from a timeout and can also be encouraged to behave better by using rewards.

On the other hand, older children can have certain privileges — perhaps, a game they were fond of — temporarily taken away. Paying less attention to children when they exhibit bad behavior can also help, Dr. Sege added.

Apart from physically hurting children, the experts did not support verbally abusing them and humiliating them either. This type of shaming only damages the relationship between the parent and child, even if the former was loving at other times.

The AAP strongly advised parents to "establish a positive, supporting and loving relationship" with their child. "Without this foundation, your child has no reason, other than fear, to demonstrate good behavior."