The psychological impacts of physical punishment

A study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that children subjected to such punishments risk having mental health problems as adults. According to the Canadian researchers, these can show up as mood and anxiety disorders or substance abuse. They analysed data from thousands of American adults in one of the first studies to look at the long-term effects of physical punishment on children, even if the punishment was not major maltreatment or physical abuse.

The study defined “harsh physical punishment” as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping or hitting by elders. It suggests that even if there is no major maltreatment or physical abuse, these punishments can psychologically affect a child in adulthood.The study found that 2 to 7 per cent of mental problems, including depression, bulimia, personality disorders and intellectual disabilities, were linked to such punishments in childhood.

The findings are consistent with those of other studies on the effects of physical punishment on children, said Ms Lynn Soh, Senior Principal Psychologist at the Psychosocial Trauma Support Service, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), a member of the SingHealth group. Commenting on the study, she said as long as discipline involves hitting, slapping or smacking a child, it may increase the likelihood of negatively impacting his mental health as an adult.

“The message sent to children through corporal punishment is one of aggression. It includes repeatedly telling a child that he is worthless, useless, unloved or unwanted, and threatening to use physical or psychological violence on him. This message of aggression, more than the actual physical punishment, has an important effect on a child’s psychological health later in life.”

She said physical punishment usually occurs with psychological aggression. If this continues, over time the child internalises a message of violence, and may grow up believing that physical aggression is okay in certain social situations.

“It’s ironic to use physical punishment to teach a child not to be aggressive. It reduces his understanding of the rules and values being taught.”

Physical punishment affects children's development in various ways

A child may learn to fear punishment, rather than understand why he should follow rules, and so grow up with less ability to stop himself from misbehaving. Some children may interpret spanking as a sign that their parents do not love them, and this could lead to a strained relationship with their parents.

A child who is physically punished, without being told why, may develop poor self-esteem and this can make it difficult for him to adjust socially in school.

“Poor self-esteem and low self-confidence can increase the likelihood of poor academic performance. The child may have difficulty concentrating, and this can reduce his potential to excel academically,” said Ms Soh.

In a worst-case scenario, a child may even contemplate suicide. Parents are responsible for taking care of their children’s material needs, and be role models who facilitate the healthy physical, mental, emotional and social growth of their kids. Given the adverse effects of physical punishment, it is important to look for alternatives, said Ms Soh. “There are many non-violent ways to discipline or punish a child instead of hitting, smacking or spanking him.”

Ref: N18