Children and AdolescentsLatest NewsParenting

Spanking Children: A Health Hazard That Increases Misbehavior

This blog-post is addressing a serious and potentially controversial topic: spanking. It’s a tough thing to talk about, so thank you for being brave and reading this article. New research regarding spanking has been in the news recently, with two ground-breaking studies in the last month. As a result, as a Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist, I felt it was important to share this information with parents.


Imagine that your child has been on your last nerve all day.  She has been mouthy, rude, and insubordinate.  Next, she hit her younger brother and called you a rude name.  You can feel your patience receding and you can only imagine what your parents would have done to you as a child for these same behaviors.  Suddenly, she throws a box of Legos on the floor and spits her tongue out at you.  What do you do?

If your first instinct was to say, “If that was my kid, she would get a good spanking,” you are not alone. Most parents have spanked their child at least once.  In fact, according to recent research, more than half of women and three-quarters of men in the United States believe a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.” Additionally, about 94 percent of parents of preschool children in the United States have spanked their children in the previous year.

However, if you use physical punishment, such as spanking, you need to learn the facts of how effective it is, as well as some of the dangerous side effects.

Below are some science-based facts about spanking

Spanking harms your child’s brain development

Science has found that physical punishment changes a child’s brain by decreasing the amount of gray matter in the cerebral cortex. Decreases in this area of the brain have been linked to depression, addiction, poor impulse control, inattention, learning concerns, and other mental health disorders.

Although also verified by previous research, Strauss and Paschall (2009) found that children who receive physical punishment experience a decrease in intelligence.  Moreover, corporal punishment was hardest on the brains of children under the age of 9.

The exact reason why spanking leads to less intelligence and gray matter is unknown.  However, it is likely that children who are spanked become fearful towards trying new things or learning new things.  As a result, they do not actively experiment in their world, thus decreasing what they know over time.  It is also possible that some children sustain repetitive, mild head injuries, which over time cause damage to the brain.  These injuries are far more likely if children are shaken or hit in the face or head.

Spanking often increases misbehavior, rather than stopping it

A study in Pediatrics (2010) found that when children were spanked more than twice in the previous month, increased aggression occurred.  In these children, spanking when a child was 3 was linked to an increased risk for higher levels of child aggression when the child was 5.

A recent study (2016) was one of the largest to date on this subject.  Experts reviewed decades of research from 75 studies involving more than 160,000 children. The findings supported that the more the children were spanked, the more likely they were to have rule-breaking or criminal behavior.  Also, they were more likely to support physical punishment for their own children.  This finding helps explain why attitudes toward physical punishment are passed from generation to generation.

Previous research (Strauss, 2013) tried to eliminate variables like education level and cultural background, and examined the impact of spanking in countries in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East. The study found increased number of criminal records in children who were spanked, even when the families were otherwise stable and loving.

Spanking contributes to mental illness of people later in life

The use of physical punishment to discipline children has been linked to a range of mental health problems.   One such study (2012) in Pediatrics found that physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as several personality disorders. Additionally, recent research (2016) supported that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to experience mental health problems as teens and adults.

Parents, health care providers, teachers, and those who work with children should know about the link between physical punishment and mental disorders.  It is important.  How we manage our children’s behaviors directly relates to the happiness, health, and fulfillment that they experience in their adult lives.

Spanking is associated with abusive relationships later in life

As children, we learn how to interact with others in relationships. By modeling physical aggression to manage conflict, we may be teaching our children to do this in other relationships as well.  A recent study (in press) found a correlation between children who are spanked and increased rates of physically abuse towards romantic partners in adolescence and adulthood.

“How we manage our children’s behaviors directly relates to the happiness, health, and fulfillment that they experience in their adult lives.”

Cindy Nichols Anderson, Ph.D., ABPP

There are no benefits to spanking

Reviews of hundreds of studies on the effects of corporal punishment have been conducted (Gershoff, 2013). No studies found a benefit to spanking.  None.  But, what this research did identify was that spanking was associated with aggression, delinquency, mental health problems.  Furthermore, children who are spanked are more likely to hold expectations that other people are mean or cruel.

American Academy of Pediatrics has an opinion

From their website (2017), the American Academy of Pediatrics states, The use of physical punishment to discipline children has been linked to a range of mental health problems and is strongly opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics…  Reducing physical punishment may help decrease the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.”

Below are suggestions for what you can do instead of spanking

Stay calm

If your child is acting out, take a deep breath and count to 10.  Also, you can walk away if you need to.  When we are angry or upset, we rarely make good decisions about our behavior, words, or thoughts.  As parents, it is important to respond in ways that we can be proud of ourselves.  Remember, that we are teaching our children how to solve conflict.

Stay positive

Notice when your child is doing a good job.  Also, praise them, snuggle them, touch them with respect, and be kind to them.  Additionally, spend time enjoying them every day.  By doing these things, you can improve your child’s behavior, and will decrease the need for discipline.

Stay clear about what you want and consistent with rules

At a time when your child is not in trouble, talk about your expectations and appropriate behavior.  Next, role-play and discuss what you want from them.  Practice being successful.  With young children, you can even use dolls and toys to act out (and practice) good choices.  Finally, when your child breaks a rule, even small one, consistently respond with your plan and follow through.  It will make a difference in terms of improving your child’s behavior without punishment.

Talk to a therapist and learn skills to help.


If you are having child managing your child’s behavior, it is always appropriate to talk to a Child Therapist or Child Psychologist.  Discipline issues are typical concerns, and it is healthy to seek support.  A good therapist will not judge you or think negatively of you for seeking help.  Rather, they will be glad to work with you and your child to learn new strategies and make things better in your family.

Reduce your own stress as a parent

When parents are stressed, so are their children.  Unlike adults, children with stress tend to act out behaviorally.  They may yell, defy requests or rules, bother their siblings, cry, or cause disruption. By taking care of yourself, you will be better able to manage your child’s behavior more effectively.  You may need a parent time out.  Be patient and kind to yourself.  It will take practice to do things differently.

Download a free copy of this book and read it

It is a free resource that covers the developmental needs of children, particularly as it relates to discipline, as well as approaches that parents can use.

Read one of these fine books that teach parents healthy ways to discipline effectively


Tracie O. Afifi, Natalie P. Mota, Patricia Dasiewicz, Harriet L. MacMillan, Jitender Sareen (2012).  Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results from a Nationally Representative US Sample.  Pediatrics VOLUME 130 / ISSUE 2.

Akemi Tomoda, MD, PhD, Hanako Suzuki, MA, Keren Rabi, MA, Yi-Shin Sheu, BS, Ann Polcari, PhD, and Martin H. Teicher, MD.   (2009)  Neuroimage. Aug; 47(Suppl 2): T66–T71. Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishment.

A. Taylor, J. A. Manganello, S. J. Lee, J. C. Rice (2010) Pediatrics, 125, (5). Mothers’ Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children’s Aggressive Behavior

Gershoff, E T.,Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016)  Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses.  Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 30(4),453-469.

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 133-137. DOI: 10.1111/cdep.12038

M.A. Strauss, M. J. Paschall (2009) Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma.  The Effects of Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Development of Children’s Cognitive Ability: A Longitudinal Study of Two Nationally Representative Age Cohorts

Straus M.A., and Stewart, .JH. (1999). Corporal punishment by American parents: national data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration, in relation to child and family characteristics. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review,2, 55-70.

Jeff R. Temple, Hye Jeong Choi, PhD, Tyson Reuter, PhD, David Wolfe, PhD, Catherine A. Taylor, PhD, Sheri Madigan, PhD, Lauren E. Scott, MSW (In press).  Journal of Pediatrics. Childhood Corporal Punishment and Future Perpetration of Physical Dating Violence.


About Post Author