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Spanking Linked to Psychiatric Illness. Really?

July 2, 2012 | Caroline Miller

There's a new study getting a fair amount of attention that links being spanked as a child to the development of mental illness later in life. But our takeaway is necessarily more nuanced, particularly since the study's data is a little bit slippery.

Some Canadian researchers have analyzed data from an epidemiological sample of more than 30,000 Americans at least 20 years old, collected in 2004 and 2005.  Participants in the survey were asked how often they were "pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house." Factoring out any who reported more severe physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect, researchers identified 6 percent of participants who recalled experiencing physical punishment. And they found that group to be 59 percent more likely to have alcohol dependence, 41 percent more like to have depression and 24 percent more likely to have panic disorder than adults who weren't subject to corporal punishment, reports MSNBC.

The study reinforces the current thinking of most psychologists, psychiatrists and pediatricians that a better way to discipline children is to use positive reinforcement for good behavior and consistent consequences, like time outs or withdrawal of privileges, for bad behavior.  But like a lot of studies we see come down the parenting pike, it looks a little iffy to us.  All the stories we saw reporting on the study included some version of the obvious disclaimer: "The researchers noted the study found an association, and not a cause-effect link." But the abstract of the study on the web site for the journal Pediatrics says that between 2% and 7% of adult psychiatric disorders are "attributable to harsh physical punishment." Unfortunately, we haven't a clue what "attributable to" means in this context.

In any case, the emotional health of a family and the constructive or destructive quality of the relationship between kids and their parents are not easy things to measure. They can't be reduced to spanking or not spanking. But even more to the point, we know that mental illness, though it may be triggered or exacerbated by trauma, is not the result of bad parenting, however you define it.  One of the reasons we discourage parents from corporal punishment is that children who misbehave often have psychiatric disorders, and those kids definitely respond better to calm, consistent parenting, not those who strike out in anger.

For more about the negative impact of harsh physical punishment on kids, watch this CBS interview with Dr. Steven Kurtz.

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cfthinksabout · Jul 06 2012 Report

As a child psychiatrist, I will point out that this study is merely one more nail in an otherwise fully nailed coffin: spanking is unnecessary and inefficient at best and harmful at worst. We know this. It's not news, it's not controversial particularly in the field, it just is something we need to stop doing. The conclusion that mental illness is not caused by bad parenting is false. SOME mental illness CAN BE caused by bad parenting, like PTSD. There is evidence of other things, too, like depression and anxiety, and even some hints that psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia can be caused by traumatic upbringing. However, A LOT of mental illness is caused by other things, maybe even just bad luck! Remember, bad parenting is not the common everyday mistakes and misjudgements. Those are just not-as-good parenting. Kids get over these without difficulty because of all the other good things we do as parents. Spanking, though, can be either category: a mistake or a serious trauma, depending on how often and how bad. The reason that medical professionals and child advocates hate it so much is that almost everyone thinks they do it "right." Good news, though: you don't have to do it at all!

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