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Spanking: 50 Years of Research Shows How Detrimental It Is

Children who were spanked are more likely to defy their parents, exhibit antisocial behavior and aggression, and experience mental health problems and cognitive difficulties, according to a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin which analyzed 50 years worth of research involving more than 160,000 children. (Researchers defined spanking as an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities.)

The use of spanking to discipline children had the opposite effect.

“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a release. “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”

“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” Gershoff noted. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

Spanking is also linked to mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Growing up, I didn’t know other little girls who were spanked. It wasn’t the norm among my friends. I’m 32 now and my brother is 34. I’ve been treated for PTSD, anxiety, and depression throughout my life. My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 10 years ago.

I had hoped that spanking was no longer considered appropriate to parents. Sadly, I was wrong. About 76 percent of men and 65 percent of women, age 18 to 65, agree that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking,” according to a 2014 Child Trends national survey. A 1999 study on corporal punishment found that 94 percent of parents of children age three to four admitted to spanking their children in the past year.

Spanking doesn’t make children avoid problem behaviors; it makes them want to avoid another spanking. “Children will work hard to avoid getting caught for the offense that might lead to a spanking, or they will misbehave even more, or they will change their feelings and behaviors toward the spanker and still not change their behavior,” explained Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., in this article.

Furthermore spanking creates a schism between parent and child. A 2015 study found that showing affection towards children after a spanking doesn’t soothe them, in fact it makes them even more anxious.

Studies show there are more effective ways to punish a child and that’s what I saw playing out in the homes of all my girlfriends. Communication is key. Spanking is a breakdown in communication. Rather than teaching a child how to compromise or reason, frustration takes over and physical boundary violation occurs.

How does it feel to be spanked? It feels like being attacked. As a child I’d often run for my life, believing completely that my life was in danger.

Being spanked gave me the sense that I didn’t have a right to my own personal space. I was an object, and as long as I was a child my personal boundaries could be violated by anyone. And they were.

Embrace communication, compromise, reasoning, and reinforcement — if not because spanking accomplishes the opposite of what you want, then do it for the long-term mental health of the child.

Child afraid of the belt photo available from Shutterstock

Spanking: 50 Years of Research Shows How Detrimental It Is

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Spanking: 50 Years of Research Shows How Detrimental It Is. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.