What to Know About Spanking

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 18, 2023
5 min read

A common form of punishment many parents use to discipline their children is spanking. By the time a child reaches high school in the U.S., around 85% of them have been spanked or more harshly punished. Most of the spanking happens during early to mid-childhood, when parents believe spanking shows their child discipline. 

But, many studies and research have shown that spanking is not the best conflict resolution and doesn’t discipline well. Instead, children are left with lasting adverse psychological effects that carry into their parenting styles.

Parents use spanking mainly to punish their children’s bad behavior and increase good behavior in the future. In most cases, parents spank their children to stop doing whatever their parents deem as bad behavior. 

Spanking was once a common practice for parents in the U.S. to discipline their children. Today, more research is showing that spanking is ineffective and harmful. Spanking is seen more often as a form of violence against children.

Spanking is a type of corporal punishment that can do more harm than good. Spanking is on a list of physical punishments that include hitting or causing pain to your child. This form of punishment started declining around the 1960s in the U.S. But two-thirds of Americans still approve of this type of punishment. 

Young children getting spanked are more likely to have anxiety and depression when they get older. The trauma spanking causes can hinder their ability to regulate their emotions and engage in school.

Because spanking has been used for so long, it’s easy to wonder, does spanking work? That’s why there has been plenty of research dating back to the early 1900s. In most studies, researchers found that spanking causes adverse effects in children. 

The frequency and severity of the spanking can cause even bigger effects on the child. Some studies showed that parent and child relationships deteriorated when parents used spanking. This happens because children are less likely to trust their parents, especially if the spanking is erratic.

The research looked at the likelihood of spanking decreasing lousy behavior in the short and long term. Short-term compliance is harder to observe because it often happens spontaneously in the home. But long-term noncompliance in children is more likely the more they are spanked. 

More research shows that spanking can lead to issues, including physical and mental health problems. Children who get spanked may also withdraw from people in school or social settings.

Disciplining your toddler doesn’t require spanking. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in 2018 saying they opposed corporal punishment. They then proposed alternative discipline strategies to try instead of hitting your child. Teaching appropriate behavior can happen without spanking.

Positive reinforcement is a great technique that rewards children for their good behavior. Disciplining a toddler or young child requires patience and a level head. When your child ultimately throws a tantrum, you should neutrally deal with them. 

One technique parents can use for toddlers is allowing them to throw a tantrum. It may sound counterproductive, but letting your child learn how to throw a tantrum helps them practice controlling their anger.

Taking a timeout yourself can be helpful. When you start to feel overwhelmed, take a moment to step away and take a breath. Then, you can come back and help your child understand that outbursts don’t get rewarded.  

Praising good behavior and celebrating their wins can help your child know actions they should repeat. If they’re acting out, you can ignore that behavior and make sure they know bad behavior won’t get them what they want.

As your toddler ages, they’ll start to understand what’s wrong and right. That doesn’t mean they won’t test your limits and push your rules. But they’re doing this to see how you’ll react. Maintaining positive reinforcement and celebrating good behavior will help set them up for success.

Instead of spanking, try alternatives to disciplining your child. Time out is a good method for when your child is acting out. Sit them in a space where they can think about what went wrong. Then, you can talk about their behavior and how to do better next time. 

Some other spanking alternatives include getting someone else involved. If you’re having a hard time controlling your anger when your child acts out, it’s best to get someone else to help. Having a second person around will make you less likely to strike your child out of anger.

Redirecting bad behavior allows you to show your child what they should do instead of what they shouldn’t. Let them know there are consequences for bad actions and teach them how to identify those moments.

There are many reasons why spanking doesn't work. Several studies have found that child abuse can start as physical punishment, like spanking. Most abuse begins with a parent who wants to teach their child a lesson, but that “teaching” escalates and causes injury. 

The problem with spanking as a punishment is that it immediately stops the bad behavior. But only because the child is afraid of getting hit. However, it doesn’t fix the behavior in the long term. Studies have found physical punishment from parents makes the child more aggressive. 

When a parent hits a child, that child turns around and strikes out at their siblings, friends, or back at their parents. Spanking also leads to rash behavior when the child can’t control their anger.

Children who were spanked often were at a higher risk for mental health problems, including: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug abuse
  • Aggression
  • Partner abuse when they’re older

Adults who were spanked as children are more likely to have unhealthy relationships with partners and friends. They learn at a young age that violence is how you get what you want. Or hitting someone can be a part of a healthy, loving relationship because that’s what they had with their parents.

In the end, just because your parents did something doesn’t mean you should incorporate that into your relationship with your children. There were plenty of things your parents did that aren’t recommended today. As you begin your parenting journey, start it with love, empathy, and a level head. Parenting isn’t easy, but positive reinforcement and loving intentions can help create a healthy relationship between you and your child.