New study: Spanking your kids makes them more aggressive & raises risk of mental health issues

Many people consider spanking children to be an adequate form of parental discipline but the American Academy of Pediatrics has once again spoken out against it.

The new policy statement was published in the journal, pediatrics on Monday. Rather than spanking, slapping, hitting, insulting, threatening, shaming or humiliating children, the Pediatrics Association recommends a healthier form of discipline. This includes setting limits and expectations as well as providing positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors.

The last guidelines were published in 1998 but this policy statement updates those guidelines. The original guidelines recommended that: “parents be encouraged and assisted in developing methods other than spanking in response to undesired behavior.”

“In the 20 years since that policy was first published, there’s been a great deal of additional research, and we’re now much stronger in saying that parents should never hit their child and never use verbal insults that would humiliate or shame the child,” said Dr. Robert Sege, first author of the policy statement and a pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

“This is much stronger than the previous advice,” he said. “The new policy encourages pediatricians to discuss the data about different kinds of discipline with parents so, of course, they can make their own decisions in how they chose to raise their children.”

According to the policy statement, corporal punishment is defined as “noninjurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior.” This could be understood as spanking being a type of physical punishment that would fall under those limitations.

A number of studies were considered when coming out with this statement. It showed an association between spanking and aggressive behaviors in children as well as symptoms of depression in adolescents. It also showed that there was less gray matter in children’s brains when spanking was used as discipline.

How Do You Discipline without Spanking?

Pediatricians are encouraged by the statement to counsel the parents when they want specific guidance about the use of spanking as a form of discipline. Sege said that other types of discipline can be used, regardless of the age of the child.

As an example, a child who is not yet one year old may have a problem with misbehaving. They said: “the best thing to do is just pick them up and move them somewhere else, distract them, change the subject — and that’s usually all they need and they can handle it. Your average 6-month-old child doesn’t have the ability to learn the rules. They will eventually.”

A timeout method was recommended for toddlers and those who are of preschool age. This could involve sending the child to sit quietly to themselves.

“What we talk to parents about is paying attention to your child’s good behavior and paying less attention when they’re misbehaving,” Sege said.

“Kids like attention, they crave that, and if they misbehave, we recommend something called a time-out,” he said. “If they’re 2 years old, you have to ignore them for two entire minutes.”

Allowing the natural consequences of misbehavior to play out could be effective in an older child.

“So if they run out in the street, you don’t want the natural consequence to be that they get run over by a car. But a natural consequence might be that they have to hold your hand when they’re in the street or they can’t go out on their own past a busy street until you’ve observed them always looking both ways,” Sege said.

In this instance, having to hold mom or dad’s hand is the consequence.

All in all, “the loving relationship between a child and their parents is the most important relationship that there is,” Sege said.

“Parents can use that relationship to teach their children right from wrong without inserting violence, shame and humiliation into that relationship,” he said. “As a result, children are more likely to grow up feeling secure and positive, knowing how to regulate their own behavior.”

The Science of Spanking and the Development of Children

According to Rebecca Ryan, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Georgetown University, the policy statement goes hand-in-hand with what researchers found on how corporal punishment fits in with adverse outcomes for children. Ryan was not involved in the statement.

Ryan is an authority on the subject because she studies the use of corporal punishment. She said that only a correlational relationship has been associated with it, not a casual relationship.

“Nobody has randomly assigned children to receive different types of parenting or different types of discipline strategies, per se. … So it’s difficult for anybody to say spanking a child causes that child later on to be more aggressive, even though there are theories to suggest that could be why the correlation exists,” Ryan said.

“Although all the evidence is correlational, there’s little correlational evidence that it’s an effective strategy, and if it were effective, you should see correlational evidence,” she said.

“If it were an effective strategy, you would either see no correlation between spanking and child behavior, or you would see a correlation that’s the opposite of what you do see,” she said. “What you see is a positive correlation between spanking and higher levels of behavior problems. If it were effective you should see the opposite.”

Since only a co-relational relationship is seen in the research, some questions arise as to whether children who are more aggressive or misbehave more frequently are also spanked more often. It could be why higher levels of behavioral problems are associated with children who receive more corporal punishment.

“There probably is reverse causation, but one of the things that some of the longitudinal research suggests is that when you look at kids over time — so controlling for baseline rates of misbehavior — children who are disciplined with corporal punishment versus those who are not, who have the same kinds of behavior problems, show increases in behavior problems over time in a way that children who aren’t disciplined that way don’t,” Ryan said.

“So yes, there is probably some truth to the idea that kids who are predisposed to misbehavior for whatever reason are more likely to be spanked by parents who use that form of discipline than kids who are less likely to misbehave for whatever reason,” she said. “But it’s also true that spanking is correlated with an increase in behavior problems over time among children with similar levels of misbehavior relative to nonphysical forms of discipline.”

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