Physical punishment leads to mental disorders

July 12, 2012

Physical punishment such as spanking is associated with a range of mental and personality disorders in adulthood, researchers have found. The findings point to the importance of more positive parenting approaches that will ensure children’s future mental health. More >>

Physical punishment such as spanking is associated with a range of mental and personality disorders in adulthood, researchers have found. This is the first nationally representative examination of physical punishment and mental disorders attributable to physical punishment in the general population, and its findings point to the importance of more positive parenting approaches that will ensure children’s future mental health.

Despite evidence of the adverse mental and behavioral effects of physical punishment and strong recommendations by pediatric organizations against it, it remains a widely used practice.

Using data from a large, nationally representative sample of US adults (≥20 years of age), researchers examined the possible link between harsh physical punishment (ie, pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting) in the absence of more severe child maltreatment (ie, physical or sexual abuse, violence, or neglect) and Axis I mental and Axis II personality disorders.

Of the 34,653 adults surveyed, 6% reported having experienced harsh physical punishment without more severe maltreatment. After adjustment for sociodemographic variables and family history of dysfunction, harsh physical punishment was associated with a greater risk for most lifetime mental disorders, including major depression, dysthymia, mania, mood disorders, specific phobia, anxiety disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse or dependence, as well as several personality disorders.

The researchers estimate that approximately 2% to 5% of Axis I disorders and 4% to 7% of Axis II disorders were attributable to harsh physical punishment and suggest that replacing physical punishment with more positive parenting approaches could help reduce the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has consistently opposed using physical punishment to discipline children and has taken a definitive stand against spanking. The AAP advises pediatricians to counsel parents about discipline when their children are young, to guide them to change their cultural attitudes regarding physical punishment, and to help them establish an acceptable and effective approach to behavioral control before problems arise.

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