The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued an updated policy statement on discipline,1 calling for us to teach parents not to use corporal punishment or verbally abuse their children. While a 2016 survey of 787 pediatricians found only 6% endorsed spanking as a positive, and, in a 2013 Harris Poll, fewer parents (72%) endorsed spanking, compared with 87% in 1995, we still have a lot of work to do given the even clearer adverse effects of painful discipline.
One of the difficult things about teaching parents to stop corporal punishment is that it works. A smack instantly stops many misbehaviors, but, when asked closely, parents admit that the pause is only about 10 minutes. Instant results are highly reinforcing, and smacking gives welcome emotional release for adults. Most parents who hit their children also were hit growing up. Hitting seems a natural and appropriate method of parenting because this is what their own beloved parents did. Hitting is not a logical decision but a reflex reinforced by early and current experiences.
Another barrier to stopping hitting is that, while some adverse effects appear immediately, most occur later. Immediate effects of the child screaming, telling the parent “I hate you,” throwing things, or stomping to their room may upset the parent, but also may be seen as signs that their action was effective, if retribution is their unconscious goal. Parenting comes at you like a fire hose, and our visits with families can be a special opportunity for reflection on their goals and how well their methods are working.
We can help parents see the later effects appearing hours or days after the hitting. Children feel degraded by spanking, and they may talk back; act sassy; refuse to follow directions or cooperate; and be mean to siblings, pets, or peers. Wait, you say, those were the behaviors the parent cited for hitting the child in the first place! This “hit, act up, hit” cycle perpetuating corporal punishment2 may be invisible to the parent.
Corporal punishment effects
“But he knows I love him,” parents will say, “and he respects me because of the way I have raised him.” Those things may be true, but the residual of loving combined with fearing has been shown to result in adulthood with increased aggression towards loved ones, including child abuse, partner violence, and sadistic sexual behaviors.
We can explain the much-later effects of corporal punishment: A child who experiences pain from the person they love and count on the most in life may develop very mixed feelings in future relationships. Especially if the pain was not countered by affection and admiration from the parent most of the time, the child may become aggressive; numb to others and to him/herself; and develop low self-esteem, learning difficulties, and depression or other mental health disorders. In some cases, the emotionally wounded child is driven to cause similar pain in others through mean acts, stealing things, hurting animals, and violence. “People hurt me so I am going to hurt them” is their unconscious path. As an adult, coping with old hurts may include numbing it with alcohol, drugs, overeating, smoking, or excessive sexual activities.
Do these sound like the familiar aftereffects of having adverse childhood experiences (ACE)? In fact, data from the original ACEs group who were recalling their childhoods showed that corporal punishment had a similar but independent impact as abuse, increasing suicide, and alcohol and substance use disorder.3 And the brain changes on MRIs of children with repeated corporal punishment had similar reductions of the prefrontal cortex and similar abnormalities of stress-related cortisol release.4
Parents commonly counter our advice not to hit their child by saying they were spanked and “came out okay.” But as for other medical problems, the effects of corporal punishment vary from child to child. Feelings are more easily and permanently damaged for some than for others, and we cannot predict who will have the worst outcomes. We do know that hitting is more harmful if not counteracted with affection, that more arbitrary hitting is worse than planned hitting for breaking prespecified rules, that more frequent hitting over time and to a later age has worse outcome, and that effects are smaller in studies of African Americans. Abuse, most often an acceleration of a disciplinary encounter, of course must be stopped and reported. Considered independently of parent factors, the children most likely to get hit are those with frequent impulsive misbehavior, such as ADHD, where our counseling to distinguish intentional from ADHD-related behaviors is most crucial. Anxious children likely take hitting to heart.