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January 9, 2013 by KAREN FOSTER
Studies Show Spanking Children Ineffective, Making Them Aggressive and Depressed


Experts in the mental health of children have always emphasized that displays of physical aggression typically leads to behavioral problems. Children universally seek to understand their world through the love and nurturing comfort of care-givers, not physical pain by consequence of misbehaving. A new study is supporting that contention by finding a link between spanking and childhood aggression and depression.

The findings, published in the fall 2012 Journal of Family and Marriage by researchers Andrea Gromoske and Kathryn Maguire-Jack, looked specifically at the fallout from spanking kids under 1-year-old in a sample of 3,870 families across the country. They found it led to three-year-olds who were aggressive--hitting, screaming or having tantrums--and five-year-olds who were depressed or anxious.

"The aim of our study was to investigate whether spanking at age one would be related to greater aggressive behavior, and then whether greater aggressive behavior would be related to greater depressive behavior," study co-author Gromoske told Yahoo! Shine in her first press interview about the findings. "Prior research had indicated that spanking was related to each type of child behavior, but no one had investigated how all of them were interrelated."

The study adds more fuel to the fire of the never-ending spanking controversy. Various reports show that up to 90% of parents think a good swat on the behind is okay; one 2010 survey, according to Child Trends Data Bank, found that found 75% of women (and 64% of men) agreed that kids sometimes need a "good hard spanking." Still, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association are against the practice. And past studies have also found a connection between spanking and acting out, including a widely publicized one out of Tulane University and published in Pediatrics in 2010, finding that, out of the nearly 2,500 youngsters looked at, those who were spanked more frequently at age three were much more likely to be aggressive by age five.

According to an earlier reports in the journal Pediatrics, behavior problems at school age were substantially more common in children who were spanked frequently before age 2 than among those who were not spanked very often. "The context within the family where spanking takes place probably influences its effect on kids," said Dr. Eric P. Slade at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. If there is a lot of tension within a family or if a child has persistent anger directed at him or her, "then spanking might have more of an effect," Slade said.

Before age 2, children have a relatively limited ability to understand what punishment is about and to follow directions, Slade explained. "It may be more traumatic for them to be spanked at that age."

Children form their sense of security with their parents before age 2, so another concern was that spanking could interfere with this, Slade said. He noted that children who feel more secure at an early age are less likely to have emotional and behavior problems later in childhood.

While past research in this area had shown a direct relationship between spanking and depressive symptoms, she and Maguire-Jack found a more complex connection, or chain of events, with aggression at 3 and depression at 5. "It turned out that spanking was directly related to future aggressive behaviors," she explained, "and that increases in aggressive behaviors were related to increases in depressive behaviors."

Spanking is strongly linked with immediate compliance in some children, but also with 10 negative behaviors such as aggression, antisocial behavior and abuse of children and spouses in adulthood, reported the American Psychological Association (APA). "There is general consensus that corporal punishment is effective in getting children to comply immediately, while at the same time there is caution from child abuse researchers that corporal punishment, by its nature, can escalate into physical maltreatment," they wrote. But physical punishment does not automatically mean a child will grow up to be hostile or violent.

"The act of corporal punishment itself is different across (the spectrum of) parents--parents vary in how frequently they use it, how forcefully they administer it, how emotionally aroused they are when they do it, and whether they combine it with other techniques," according to the APA report.

Spanking is not the best form of discipline, because it does not teach children right from wrong. Although it makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, they feel free to misbehave if they believe they can get away with it, according to researchers.

Compared to mothers who don't spank their children, mothers who've spanked their child are three times more likely to use harsher forms of punishment. That study by the Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina also showed that "increases in the frequency of spanking are associated with increased odds of abuse, and mothers who report spanking on the buttocks with an object -- such as a belt or a switch -- are nine times more likely to report abuse, compared to mothers who report no spanking," stated author Dr. Adam J. Zolotor, an assistant professor in the department of family medicine. "This study demonstrated for the first time that parents who report spanking children with an object and parents who frequently spank children are much more likely to report other harsh punishment acts consistent with physical abuse," he said.

In 2011, Psychologist George W. Holden from Southern Methodist University said in one of the first studies of its kind, 37 mothers recorded up to 36 hours of interactions with their children. The data captured the moments before, during and after punishment, which ranged from spanking with a belt to admonishments while hitting. In one recording, a mom spanks her 3-year-old 11 times for fighting with his sister. In another, a mom slaps her son for turning the page of a book while she reads to him. In still another, a mom spanks her 5-year-old when he refuses to clean up his room after repeated warnings to do so.

"In the case where the child was slapped for grabbing a book, it was not 10 seconds later he did it again," said Holden. "The amazing thing is, the mom was reading so nicely to the child and the child was being so normal, reaching for the book or wanting to turn the page or point to something."

With its "event-sampling" approach, the research is a unique opportunity to understand what's going on in the life of a family before spanking, including whether conflict gradually escalates or instead blows up out of nowhere, Holden said. It also reveals what occurs with spanking, such as verbal reprimands, admonitions, yelling or time-out.

"Despite the fact there have been hundreds of studies on spanking, I think with these audio recordings we have the first data of naturally occurring spanking," said Holden, who has published five books and more than 55 scientific papers on parenting and child development.

"Virtually all previous studies have relied on verbal reports, either asking parents how often they spank, and a few asking children how they felt about being spanked," he said. "This study is not affected or biased by memory or attitudes or orientations toward discipline because it's what's happening in the home."

The research, "Investigating Actual Incidents of Spanking in the Home," was presented June 3-4 at the international conference "Global Summit on Ending Corporal Punishment and Promoting Positive Discipline" in Dallas.

"One interaction in particular, a child of 2 or 3 years of age had either been hitting or kicking her mother, and in response the mother either spanks the child or slaps the child on the hand and says, 'That'll teach you not to hit your mother,'" Williamson said. "We've captured interactions with families that are very chaotic. Some of them are actually quite difficult to listen to. That tells us, at least for some families, they're not inhibiting or suppressing the kinds of parenting practices they use."

From 70 percent to 90 percent of parents spank their children, and it's practiced in the vast majority of countries worldwide, Holden said. Studies have shown that its single positive effect is immediate compliance. Increasingly, however, the evidence is clear that spanking is associated with many unintended negative consequences, he said.

"Children who are spanked are more likely to be aggressive toward other children and adults," Holden said. "Over the long term they tend to be more difficult and noncompliant, have various behavior problems, can develop anxiety disorders or depression, and later develop antisocial behavior. They are more at risk to be involved in intimate partner violence, and they are at risk to become child abusers."

While past research in this area had shown a direct relationship between spanking and depressive symptoms, Andrea Gromoske and Kathryn Maguire-Jack found a more complex connection, or chain of events, with aggression at 3 and depression at 5. "It turned out that spanking was directly related to future aggressive behaviors," she explained, "and that increases in aggressive behaviors were related to increases in depressive behaviors."

Meanwhile, Alfie Kohn, a Boston-area parenting and human behavior expert, and author of several books including "Unconditional Parenting," welcomed news of the results. "What we have here is another in a long line of research results proving that using physical violence on children is counterproductive in just about every imaginable respect," Kohn stated. "It teaches kids to be aggressive, to rely on power over those who are weaker, and to confuse loving with hurting."

"It's not the once or twice a year that a child may be swatted, but it's the kids who are exposed to frequent corporal punishment -- that is the concern," Holden said. "Kids need discipline, but centered on mutual respect and love, without potentially harming the child with corporal punishment."

Karen Foster is a holistic nutritionist, avid blogger, with five kids and an active lifestyle that keeps her in pursuit of the healthiest path towards a life of balance.

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