From the WebMD Archives

June 29, 2021 -- Physical punishment doesn’t improve a child’s behavior or social competence, and in fact, it can make behavior worse, according to a new study published Monday in the journal The Lancet.

Spanking and hitting can also harm a child’s development and well-being, the authors wrote.

“Parents hit their children because they think doing so will improve their behavior,” Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, the senior author and a human development professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN. “Unfortunately for parents who hit, our research found clear and compelling evidence that physical punishment does not improve children’s behavior and instead makes it worse.”

Gershoff and colleagues reviewed 69 studies from numerous countries, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, China, Colombia, Greece, Japan, Switzerland, and Turkey. They focused on spanking and other physical punishment that parents might use to discipline a child, excluding verbal punishment and “severe” physical punishment such as punching or kicking that could be characterized as child abuse.

Some studies in the review found a mix of positive and negative results from spanking. But most of the studies showed a significant negative impact.

In 13 of 19 studies, spanking and other forms of physical punishment created more external negative behaviors over time, including increased aggression, increased antisocial behavior, and increased disruptive behavior at school. Children were more likely to “act out” after being physically punished, regardless of the child’s gender, race, or ethnicity, the authors found.

Several studies found that physical punishment increased signs of oppositional defiant disorder, which is linked with temper tantrums, spitefulness, vindictiveness, argumentative behavior, active defiance, and refusal to follow rules.

Gershoff and colleagues also looked at the link between how often physical punishment happened and a child’s negative behavior in seven of the studies. In five of those studies, there was a “dose-response effect.”

“In other words, as physical punishment increased in frequency, so did its likelihood of predicting worse outcomes over time,” Gershoff told CNN.

In addition, the review found that negative behavior wasn’t changed by parenting style. Even if parents had an overall warm and positive parenting style, physical punishment still led to an increase in behavioral issues.

In the U.S., all 50 states allow parents to use physical punishment on children, and 19 states still have laws that allow schools to use corporal punishment, CNN reported.

But spanking appears to be declining in the U.S., particularly among younger generations, according to a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics last year. About 50% of parents reported spanking a child in 1993, which dropped to 35% in 2017.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2018 in favor of “healthy forms of discipline,” such as positive reinforcement of good behavior, setting limits, and giving consequences such as time-out or taking away toys or privileges. The group recommends against spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating, or shaming children, which can lead to behavioral problems and symptoms of depression in later years.

The AAP also suggests learning from mistakes, both for parents and children.

“Remember that, as a parent, you can give yourself a time out if you feel out of control,” the group wrote in a discipline tip sheet. “When you are feeling better, go back to your child, hug each other, and start over.”

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The Lancet: “Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies.”

CNN: “Spanking can worsen a child’s behavior and do real harm, study finds.”

JAMA Pediatrics: “Prevalence of Spanking in US National Samples of 35-Year-Old Parents From 1993 to 2017.”

Pediatrics: “Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “What’s the Best Way to Discipline My Child?”

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