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Can physical punishment, like spanking, lead to mental disorders?

Is “spanking” a Harsh Physical Punishment, or an indispensable disciplinary tool?

By Benjamin Gaul

“Children who are spanked, slapped, grabbed and pushed as a means of physical punishment may be at an increased risk for developing emotional problems later in life,” according to findings from a new study to be published in the August issue of Pediatrics.

Lead author Tracie Afifi, an epidemiologist at the University of Manitoba, and her colleagues were the first to examine the link between psychological problems and non-abusive physical punishment. They excluded physical and sexual abuse in order to better gauge the effect of corporal punishment alone.

Adults who reported undergoing such punishments, about six percent of respondents, had greater risks of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse and dependence, and several personality disorders.

Correlation is not an indicator of causation.

Despite Afifi’s findings, some family researchers argue that spanking, when used properly, can be appropriate discipline.

“Certainly, overly severe physical punishment is going to have adverse effects on children,” psychologist Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, told USA Today‘s Michelle Healy. “But for younger kids, if spanking is used in the most appropriate way and the child perceives it as being motivated by concern for their behavior and welfare, then I don’t think it has a detrimental effect.”
While the study rules out the most severe cases of physical punishment, “it does nothing to move beyond correlations to figure out what is actually causing the mental health problems,” argued Larzelere. He criticized the study’s reliance on memories of events from years earlier, and says it’s not clear when punishment occurred. “The motivation that the child perceives and when and how and why the parent uses (spanking) makes a big difference. All of that is more important than whether it was used or not.”

According to some Family Councilors, a clear and controlled spanking is far less damaging to a child than the repeated yelling and screaming which a lot of parents go through. When a child knows he’s done something wrong — something which is clearly forbidden — and is spanked for that wrong, then is shown love, spoken with, restored and allowed to proceed with a clean conscience, he experiences much less trauma than the child whose parents don’t know how to enforce discipline.

In contrast, when a child is sent to her room for a time-out, the measure of discipline is more protracted. The message usually isn’t as clear, the resolution is often more uncertain, and the opportunity to cleanse the conscience isn’t immediate. There’s less sense of closure. Sometimes it may be a good first consequence when verbal instructions are ignored — spankings are rarely a necessary first resort in every situation, since a loss of privileges or a time-out can often get your point across — but parents shouldn’t be afraid of applying physical punishment in a reasoned, consistent way. The idea ingrained in some people that time-outs are always better than spankings is a false assumption.

If you tell your child “homework or chores before video games,” be specific and clear. And MEAN IT. It is completely acceptable to require your child to keep their word. It is also beneficial to allow them to suffer the consequences of their own actions (or inactions).

How much damage is done by allowing a child to believe that none of their actions in life will ever carry a larger cost than an authority figure pleading with them to stop?

Some children, like some breeds of dog, will only accept your leadership once you’ve proven you’re the leader. Conversely, if you prove to them that they really don’t have to do as you say, they never will. They will therefore react to life from a fear-based motivational center, never sure where the boundaries are. This can cause some very aberrant behavior.

Sadly, evidence of this can be found in our penal systems. One rarely sited statistic about American prisons is the abundance of fatherless sons we incarcerate, every day. Unfortunately, a single mother’s discipline can often only reach so high. Add to that a current governmental mind-set which says any discipline beyond a “time-out’ is potential child-abuse, and you can see the recipe for disaster.

Young men, unrestrained by the authority provided by a nurturing adult male in the home, or the more direct discipline he could have imparted, shrug past their mothers pleadings, searching for the security of knowing where the edge actually is. For too many, that search leads to the highest railings we provide as a society: Prison.

We wonder if Tracie Afifi might ever study the detrimental effects her lack-of-discipline mind-set leads to?