Parental violence against children has consequences - ...And none of them are good

By: Tom Cloyd - 5 min. read (Published: 2024-03-26; reviewed: 2024-03-30)

crying child

Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Expert opinion is clear: physical punishment of children is ineffective, and has pervasive, long-term negative effects.12 This expert opinion is disrespected, ignored, or simply not known by much of our country. Children pay the price for this, and when some of them grow up and become misbehaving social deviants, we all pay the price. Our lack of a clear cultural position on violence against children, irrespective of context, is dysfunctional, shocking, and depressing. Such cultural backwardness has huge negative consequences. We can do better. We must.

“Many people don’t think about spanking as a form of violence,” but studies indicate that corporal punishment in families predicts increased levels of “anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems”.3 Opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, because it “increases aggression in young children in the long run and is ineffective in teaching a child responsibility and self-control”,4 there is evidence that spanking causes increased brain response to perceived threat, similar to the “…alter[d] neural responses to environmental threats…[seen in] more severe forms of maltreatment.”5 (Note that such elevated stress response is a symptom of PTSD - posttraumatic stress disorder.6

Physical punishment of slaves was abolished in the USA in 1863, with the abolishment of slavery. The US Navy abolished flogging in 1853, and since 1957 ANY form of physical punishment is forbidden in the US Marines.7

As of 1987, “physical punishment…[was] considered too severe for felons, murderers, criminals of all kinds and ages, including juvenile delinquents, too demeaning for soldiers, sailors, servants and spouses. But it remains legal and acceptable for children who are innocent of any crime.”7 Since then, “many countries have outlawed physical punishment of children.8 Unfortunately, as of 2021, it remains legal in the United States, Canada, The United Kingdom, Australia, and many other countries.”7

A 2015 survey found that slightly less than half of parents in the U.S., were spanking their children.9 Does this improve child behavior? A recent, meticulously done survey of research, encompassing 111 studies concluded that “…99% indicated an association between spanking and a detrimental child outcome.”10

What does that mean? Simply that the consequence of spanking was “…more aggression, more antisocial behavior, more externalizing problems11, more internalizing problems, more mental health problems, and more negative relationships with parents.”10 In addition it was found that the more parents spanked their children the more they were likely to also be physically abusive to them. As to behavioral improvement, this review of 111 studies “…found no evidence that spanking is associated with improved child behavior.”

“Babies just over a year were observed with their mothers at a clinic at the University of Houston. …Interviews about the methods of discipline they used revealed that the babies who where punished physically were the least likely to obey instructions not to touch breakables. Even more importantly, seven months later the punished children lagged behind the others in developmental tests.”7

What is the alternative? Training of parents in non-violent, supportive ways of managing children is the alternative. Since some people “get it” more quickly if we talk about training animals, consider the US military’s change of attitude concerning their working dogs. They have now universally switched from an emphasis on overt punishment as a training tool to strictly positive rewards, coupled with environmental limiters for unwanted behavior. Success in training is built on creating and maintaining a strong positive relationship.121314

Regarding our rearing of children, the research and expert opinion is clear, and well summarized in a review of 69 prospective longitudinal studies published in The Lancet2:

“Our review identified seven key themes. First, physical punishment consistently predicts increases in child behaviour problems over time. Second, physical punishment is not associated with positive outcomes over time. Third, physical punishment increases the risk of involvement with child protective services. Fourth, the only evidence of children eliciting physical punishment is for externalising behaviour. Fifth, physical punishment predicts worsening behaviour over time in quasi-experimental studies. Sixth, associations between physical punishment and detrimental child outcomes are robust across child and parent characteristics. Finally, there is some evidence of a dose–response relationship. The consistency of these findings indicates that physical punishment is harmful to children and that policy remedies are warranted.”

In plain English: This review of 69 studies in which parental physical punishment of children was studied in relation to subsequent effects of this physical punishment, it was found that -

  1. physical punishment increases future child behavior problems;

  2. physical punishment does not produce any positive future outcomes;

  3. physical punishment increases the changes of family involvement with child protective services;

  4. physical punishment was not found to be caused by characteristics of a child, except for children who engaged in externalizing behavior (see definition in note11);

  5. in studies with the best statistical controls for excluding irrelevant variables that could affect results, use of physical punishment still predicts that child behavior will get worse;

  6. regardless of the nature of the child or the parents involved, physical punishment harms children.

We must urge, as do the authors of this study, that policies aimed at changing parental behavior be implemented at governmental levels. Abuse of children affects us all.

AAP Says Spanking Harms Children. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2024, from

Aggarwal-Schifellite, M.. (2021, April 12). Spanking children may impair their brain development. Harvard Gazette.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (fifth edition). American Psychiatric Association.

Colman, S. (2011, January 13). Training Police Dogs and Military Dogs Using Positive Methods. Whole Dog Journal.

Corporal Punishment Bans Around the World—The Natural Child Project. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2024, from

Cuartas, J., Weissman, D. G., Sheridan, M. A., Lengua, L., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2021). Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children. Child Development, 92(3), 821–832.

Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 30(4), 453–469.

Heilmann, A., Mehay, A., Watt, R. G., Kelly, Y., Durrant, J. E., van Turnhout, J., & Gershoff, E. T. (2021). Physical punishment and child outcomes: A narrative review of prospective studies. Lancet (London, England), 398(10297), 355–364.

Maurer, A. & Wallerstein, J.S. (1987). The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime—The Natural Child Project.

McReynolds, T. (2020, December 23). Study: Punishment-based training is stressful for dogs.

Ohlms, S. (n.d.). 7 tips for training your dog, from a Marine who trained dogs to sniff out bombs. Business Insider. Retrieved March 30, 2024, from

Resnick, B. (2016, April 27). Parents have been spanking children for millennia. Here’s why they were wrong. Vox.

  1. AAP Says Spanking Harms Children. (n.d.) ^

  2. Heilmann, A., et al. (2021). ^ ^2

  3. Aggarwal-Schifellite, M. (2021, April 12). ^

  4. AAP Says Spanking Harms Children. (n.d.). ^

  5. Cuartas, J., et al. (2021). ^

  6. American Psychiatric Association. (2013), pp. 272-273. ^

  7. Maurer, A. & Wallerstein, J.S.. (1987). ^ ^2 ^3 ^4

  8. Corporal Punishment Bans Around the World—The Natural Child Project. (n.d.). ^

  9. Resnick, B. (2016, April 27). ^

  10. Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). ^ ^2

  11. “Externalizing behavior comprises any of a wide variety of generally antisocial acts (i.e., acts that violate social norms and/or are harmful to others). These acts include those that are targeted at another individual (e.g., aggression), as well as acts that may be considered victimless (e.g., substance use).” ^ ^2

  12. Colman, S. (2011. January 13). ^

  13. Ohlms, S. (n.d.). ^

  14. McReynolds, T. (2020, December 23). ^


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