Spanking linked to increase in children's behavior problems

November 16, 2017, Association for Psychological Science
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Children who have been spanked by their parents by age 5 show an increase in behavior problems at age 6 and age 8 relative to children who have never been spanked, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study, which uses a statistical technique to approximate random assignment, indicates that this increase in cannot be attributed to various characteristics of the child, the parents, or the home environment - rather, it seems to be the specific result of .

"Our findings suggest that spanking is not an effective technique and actually makes children's worse not better," says psychological scientist Elizabeth T. Gershoff (University of Texas at Austin), lead author on the study.

Historically, trying to determine whether parents' use of spanking actually causes children to develop behavior problems has been difficult, because researchers cannot ethically conduct experiments that randomly assign parents to spank or not.

"Parents spank for many reasons, such as their educational or cultural background or how difficult their children's behavior is. These same reasons, which we call selection factors, can also predict children's behavior problems, making it difficult to determine whether spanking is in fact the cause of behavior problems," Gershoff explained. "We realized that the of propensity score matching could help us get as close to an experiment as possible."

Gershoff and coauthors Kierra M. P. Sattler (University of Texas at Austin) and Arya Ansari (University of Virginia) examined data from 12,112 children who participated in the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. When the children were 5 years old, their parents reported how many times they had spanked their child in the past week (if any). The researchers classified any child whose parent provided a number other than zero as having been spanked.

The researchers then matched children who had been spanked with those who hadn't according to 38 child- and family-related characteristics, including: the child's age, gender, overall health, and behavior problems at age 5; the parent's education, age, and marital status; the family socioeconomic status and household size; and factors related to parenting quality and conflict in the home.

Pairing the children in this way yielded two groups of children whose main difference was whether their parents had spanked them, effectively accounting for other factors that could plausibly influence the behavior of both parent and child. This approach allowed the researchers to approximate the random assignment of participants to groups, a hallmark of experimental design.

To gauge children's behavior problems over time, Gershoff, Sattler, and Ansari examined teachers' ratings when the children were 5, 6, and 8 years old. Children's teachers reported the frequency with which the children argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively, and disturbed ongoing activities.

The results were clear: Children who had been spanked at age 5 showed greater increases in behavior problems by age 6 and also by age 8 when compared with children who had never been spanked.

Gershoff and colleagues conducted a similar analysis with only those children who had been spanked by their , comparing children who had been spanked in the week before the study (which suggests frequent spanking) and those who had not. Children spanked in the past week at age 5 also experienced greater increases in problem behavior at age 6 and 8 compared with children not spanked as frequently.

"The fact that knowing whether a child had ever been spanked was enough to predict their levels of behavior problems years later was a bit surprising," says Gershoff. "It suggests that spanking at any frequency is potentially harmful to ."

"Although dozens of studies have linked early spanking with later child behavior problems, this is the first to do so with a statistical method that approximates an experiment," she concluded.

Explore further: Risks of harm from spanking confirmed by analysis of five decades of research

More information: Elizabeth T. Gershoff et al, Strengthening Causal Estimates for Links Between Spanking and Children's Externalizing Behavior Problems, Psychological Science (2017). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617729816

Related Stories

Risks of harm from spanking confirmed by analysis of five decades of research

April 25, 2016
The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties, according to a new meta-analysis ...

Childhood spankings can lead to adult mental health problems

November 2, 2017
Getting spanked as a child can lead to a host of mental health problems in adulthood, say University of Michigan researchers.

Why parents should never spank children

October 30, 2017
Spanking —usually defined as hitting a child on the buttocks with an open hand —is a common form of discipline still used on children worldwide. However, to date, spanking has been banned in 53 countries and states ...

Spanking babies is surprisingly common

March 11, 2014
The same hands that parents use to lovingly feed, clothe and bathe their babies are also commonly used to spank their bundles of joy.

Kids still spanked, to their detriment, study finds

October 21, 2013
(HealthDay)—Spanking can affect a child's behavior and learning ability for years, with the impact of physical discipline reverberating even as kids near adolescence, a new study suggests.

Use of spanking exacerbates aggressive child behavior

December 10, 2013
A mother's affection after she spanks her child does little to diminish the negative impact of the act, a new University of Michigan study finds.

Recommended for you

Suicide risk in abused teen girls linked to mother-daughter conflict

October 18, 2018
Teenage girls who were maltreated as children are more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts if the relationship with their mother is poor and the degree of conflict between the two of them high.

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.