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Physical Punishment and Its Impact on Youth Violence

Physical punishment is a serious public health problem throughout the world, and it profoundly affects the mental health of children and the societies in which we live.


In the United States, studies show that approximately 65 percent of adults approve of physical punishment, and about 50 percent of families use physical punishment to discipline children. Yet, research documents show that physical punishment is associated with increases in delinquency, antisocial behaviour, aggression in children, and decreases in the quality of the parent-child relationship, children’s mental health, and children’s capacity to internalize socially acceptable behaviour.

Adults who have been subjected to physical punishment as children are more likely to abuse their own child or spouse and to manifest criminal behaviuor (Gershoff, 2008).


Spanking is a euphemism for hitting. One is not permitted to hit one’s spouse or a stranger; such actions are defined as the crime of assault. Nor should one be permitted to hit a small and vulnerable child.


Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves: that is, bullies and future abusers of their own children and partners. They tend to learn to use violent behaviour as a way to deal with stress and interpersonal disputes.


Defining Physical Punishment

Physical punishment has been defined as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child’s behaviour” (Gershoff, 2008, p. 9). This includes: spanking, hitting, pinching, squeezing, paddling, whipping, ”whopping,” swatting, smacking, slapping, washing a child’s mouth with soap, making a child kneel on painful objects, and forcing a child to stand or sit in painful positions for long periods of time.


Physical abuse has been characterized by “the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child” (Nat’l Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, 2000, as cited in Gershoff, 2002, p. 540). Behaviours that cause pain but not physical injury are considered physical punishment, whereas behaviours that risk physical injury are termed physical abuse.


However, recent research questions the traditional physical punishment-abuse dichotomy: Most physical abuse occurs during episodes of physical punishment. Physical abuse often follows when physical punishment is the intent, form, and effect of discipline. Both physical punishment and physical abuse must be addressed and stopped. Alternatives exist which are more effective in enhancing the healthy development of children.


The data documenting the associations between physical punishment and psychopathology and sociopathy are compelling. They can no longer be overlooked. Pioneering research has been conducted in this area over the past decade by Gershoff, Bitensky, Straus, Holden, Durrant, and others.


Gershoff (2008, 2002) examined hundreds of studies and presented the results of the meta-analyses of the association between parental physical punishment and child and adult outcomes. She found that in childhood, physical punishment was positively associated with aggression, delinquent and antisocial behavior, and being the victim of physical abuse; it was negatively associated with the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and more internalization (child’s internalizing of socially acceptable behavior); and associations with immediate compliance were mixed.


When measured in adulthood, physical punishment was positively associated with aggression, criminal and antisocial behaviour, and adult abuse of one’s own child or spouse; physical punishment was negatively associated with mental health.


Gershoff (2008, 2002) also summarized the various demographic and risk factors, which are more likely to be associated with the use of physical punishment: being single, separated, or divorced; excessive stress from negative life events; maternal depression; lower income, education, and job status and holding conservative religious beliefs and affiliation.


Bitensky (2006) presented a detailed summary of the international findings regarding physical punishment. She also described the various efforts made by the United Nations to prevent physical punishment. The issues are detailed below.


Durrant and Ensom (2012) have provided an eloquent historical review and summary of recent research. In addition, they outlined the steps necessary to continue the progress toward eliminating physical punishment. More recently, Straus et al. have done a remarkable job summarizing the research on associations between physical punishment and various psychopathology and sociopathy (2014). They found 15 major trends associated with physical punishment:


1. Increased antisocial behaviour and delinquency as a child and as a young adult

2. Greater approval of other forms of violence, such as the belief that torture is sometimes justified to obtain information critical

    for national defense, or that there are occasions when it is justified to slap a wife or husband

3. Greater impulsiveness and less self-control

4. Poorer parent-child relationships

5. Riskier sexual behavior as a teenager

6. Greater juvenile delinquency

7. More crime perpetrated as an adult

8. Poorer national average mental ability

9. Lower probability of graduating from college

10. Higher probability of depression

11. More violence against marital, cohabitating, and dating partners

12. More violence against non-family members

13. More physical abuse of children

14. More drug abuse

15. More sexual coercion and physically-forced sex


This growing body of research strongly suggests that a variety of poor outcomes are associated with physical punishment. There are more than 40 countries that have prohibited physical punishment in all settings, including the home.


Are there studies of outcomes in countries which have prohibited physical punishment? One such investigation was conducted in Finland by Karin Österman et al. and published in 2014. This was 28 years after the complete ban on physical punishment of children in Finland.


Two findings stand out from this study of over 4,500 people. First, greater amounts of physical punishment were associated with greater alcohol abuse, depression, mental health problems, divorce, and suicide attempts. Second, and perhaps most strikingly, the decline in physical punishment was associated with a similar decline in the number of murdered children. Additional studies of countries banning physical punishment have shown a significant decrease in adult approval of physical punishment.


We know now physical punishment does not work; it makes things worse, and there are better alternatives. Why is physical punishment so damaging? Affect theory helps us understand this.


Physical punishment elicits intense and toxic negative affects: fear, distress, anger, shame, and disgust. In other words, physical punishment causes precisely the feelings one does not want, the negative affects, rather than the feelings one does want—the positive affects of interest and enjoyment.

Alternatives to Physical Punishment

Adapted from

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