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Spanking Linked to Long-Term Mental Health Issues

Physical Punishment Has Long-Lasting Consequences on Children's Mental Health
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WebMD Health News

July 2, 2012 -- Pushing, grabbing, slapping, shoving, and other types of physical punishment may increase a child's risk for developing several types of emotional problems as he or she ages, a new study shows.

This type of harsh physical punishment is different than physical and sexual abuse or neglect, but it still has lasting repercussions.

The findings appear in the August 2012 Pediatrics.

"We should not be using physical punishment on children of any age," says researcher Tracie O. Afifi, PhD. She is an assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Researchers surveyed more than 34,650 adults about their childhood experiences, including how often they were physically punished by a parent or any adult living in the house. Of these, 5.9% said they were physically punished, but not abused, as kids. Participants were also asked about mood, anxiety, and personality disorders as well alcohol and drug abuse.

Those individuals who were punished physically as kids were more likely to have mental or emotional problems. According to the findings, as many as 7% of mental disorders were related to physical punishment. "This type of punishment was associated with poor mental outcomes and several mental disorders almost uniformly across the board," Afifi says.

Time-Outs and Other Alternatives to Physical Punishment

There are age-appropriate ways to discipline children. Afifi often recommends positive reinforcement, or rewarding good behaviors, as opposed to punishing bad ones.

"It is really important to make sure that what you are doing is appropriate for that age or development level," she says.

"The same act in a 4-year-old is abuse in a 6-month-old," says Andrew Adesman, MD. He is the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in Lake Success, N.Y. Something that might be acceptable in one age group crosses the line in another.

It's not enough just to tell parents that harsh physical punishment is harmful, he says. Parents need to know how to discipline their children. This starts with setting clear expectations with clear consequences.

Time-outs -- when done properly -- can be effective in preschool- and grade-school-aged children.

"A good rule of thumb is one minute for every year of age," he says. "Time-outs should occur in a safe, central location where the child can be observed."

More Than a Red Mark

When is a time-out not a time-out?

"Sending your child to his or her room is not a time-out." Also, "don't engage or negotiate with a child when he or she is in time-out. It's a time for quiet reflection," Adesman says.

Daniel L. Coury, MD, says that the effects of extreme physical abuse in children on future risk for behavioral disorders are well-established. He is a professor of clinical pediatrics and psychiatry at Ohio State University and Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

But this study shows that harsh physical discipline also has long-term consequences. "It's not just a red mark today; it has a long-lasting effect," he says. "You are causing harm and increasing your child's risk of lifelong mental problems."

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