The serious effects of physical discipline

There are many factors that influence how parents discipline their children: parents’ own upbringing, family customs and stress levels all factor in. But there is clear evidence that some forms of discipline – specifically physical punishment – have negative effects on children throughout their lives.

A new systematic review reveals a body of evidence demonstrating physical punishment may increase the chances of antisocial behavior and aggression, depression, anxiety, drug abuse and psychological problems later in life.

The review is especially interesting because it discusses intervention programs designed to reduce physical punishment and child abuse. It included a trial of one intervention that taught parents to reduce their use of physical punishment, which led to less difficult behavior by their children.

Another such program – called Triple P – originated in Australia was tested in a study funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The program uses a broad range of strategies to address physical abuse including consultations with parents, public seminars and public service announcements on local media. It led to significantly positive results that are encouraging if replicated in other areas of the U.S.  Counties that implemented the program had lower rates of substantiated child abuse cases, fewer instances of children removed from their homes and reductions in hospitalizations and emergency room visits for child injuries.

John Eckenrode, professor of human development and director of Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, is an expert in child abuse and maltreatment. He’s written a chapter about preventing child abuse in the book Violence against women and children, published by the American Psychological Association.

“We know that there are tested and effective ways to support parents so that they can better provide a safe and supportive environment for their children without resorting to physical punishment,” he said.   “But we must get the word out, provide those who interact with parents such as teachers and physicians with the tools they need to promote positive parenting strategies, and provide resources to states and localities to scale-up effective programs.”

The take-home message: Physical punishment and child abuse are serious problems that have life-long effects. But there is a growing body of evidence that intervention programs can help guide parents to other methods of discipline.

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