Physical discipline for young children has been a contentious topic for decades. A pair of new studies explores disciplinary interventions during childhood and adolescence and how family factors may influence subsequent behaviors.

Both studies conclude that parents should use alternate strategies for disciplining their children as behavioral problems in adolescence are linked to use of physical discipline in childhood.

The researchers in the new study sought to answer questions of how discipline changes during childhood and adolescence, and whether there are factors within families and children that are associated with these changes. They designed their study using data collected in two longitudinal studies, one of almost 500 children who were followed from ages 5 to 16, the other of more than 250 children followed from ages 5 to 15.

They find that parents typically adjust the way they discipline their children in response to their children’s growing cognitive abilities, using less physical discipline (spanking, slapping, hitting with an object) over time.

As children grow older, physical discipline becomes less developmentally appropriate. However, when parents’ use of physical discipline continues through childhood, by the time their children are teens, they’re more likely to have behavior problems. Teens of parents who stop using physical discipline when their children are young are less likely to have these behavior problems.

“Given these findings, mental health specialists and others who work with families should encourage parents to refrain from using physical discipline,” according to Jennifer E. Lansford, associate research professor with the Social Science Research Institute and Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, who led the study.

“They should also help parents — especially mothers who are at high risk of using harsh physical discipline because they have children whose behavior is challenging or they are dealing with a lot of stress in their environment — come up with alternate strategies for disciplining their children.”

“Low income, low educational attainment, single parenthood, family stress, and living in a dangerous neighborhood form a constellation of risk that increases the chances that parents will continue to use physical discipline with their children,” Lansford adds.

“Parents are also more likely to continue using physical discipline with children who behave aggressively.”

The studies appear in the September/October 2009 issue of Child Development.

Source: Society for Research in Child Development