Hitting a child causes damage that may not be alleviated by cuddles and kisses – maternal warmth can actually make things worse

Research across many countries shows childhood anxiety and aggression caused by physical punishment may not fall, and can increase, when mum is very loving.

If you believe that beating, hitting or slapping your children and then smoothing things over gradually by smothering them with love, you are mistaken. Being very warm with a child whom you hit in this manner rarely makes things better. It can actually make matters worse. It can make a child more, not less, anxious.

This is one of many worrying findings from our research into whether the effects of corporal punishment are alleviated by maternal warmth. We studied over 1,000 children in 11 groups across eight countries, surveying mothers about levels of corporal punishment in the home and asking both mothers and children about childhood anxiety and aggression.

We had expected to find that hugs and kisses buffered the emotional impact of physical blows. Our study involving children aged 8 to 10 shows that maternal warmth can, indeed, lessen that impact a bit, when the child is exposed to low levels of corporal punishment. Even then, the anxiety and aggression induced in a child by such corporal punishment still remains, albeit at a lower level. However, our study found that love hardly ever diminished the impact of high levels of corporal punishment. Childhood anxiety is not, in these circumstances, alleviated by an otherwise very warm parent, although in countries with more authoritarian styles of parenting such as Colombia and Kenya, the adverse effects of corporal punishment are less pronounced. Generally, childhood anxiety actually gets worse when parents are very loving alongside using corporal punishment.

We can only speculate as to why this may be. Perhaps it is simply too confusing and unnerving for a child to be hit hard and loved warmly all in the same home.

We can speculate as to why this may be. Perhaps, children irrevocably feel rejected when they are subject to such aggression, however warm the parent may be otherwise. Or, perhaps, it is simply too confusing and unnerving for a child to be hit hard and loved warmly all in the same home. That might explain why we found that children were less anxious when a parent who hit them severely was also cool towards them emotionally.

There is a broader warning from our research. It is that corporal punishment generally, even at a low level, leads to increased anxiety and aggression in children. This impact worsens, the more severe the punishment. In general, parental love rarely completely repairs the damage, even when physical punishment is relatively slight. This is largely true across a diverse set of nations. That’s why we suggest that clinicians across countries should advise parents against using corporal punishment, even in the context of parent-child relationships that are otherwise warm, and should assist parents in finding other ways to manage children’s behavior.

There is an important caveat to these findings. Results vary somewhat in countries considered to have authoritarian models of parenting, where it is considered more normal and acceptable for parents to use corporal punishment. In these countries, corporal punishment still increased childhood anxiety (as well as childhood aggression reported by parents) but not as much as in countries where corporal punishment is less socially acceptable. Also, children themselves, living amid more authoritarian parenting cultures, did not report that they became more aggressive. These findings support the theory that, in countries that have more authoritarian models of parenting, children may be less likely to interpret harsh punishment as parental rejection.

It is important, however, when considering this caveat, to remember that contexts around parenting are constantly changing. Since 1979, when Sweden became the first country to outlaw corporal punishment, 43 countries have followed suit. The number is constantly rising: corporal punishment is becoming socially unacceptable in more and more places across the world. This suggests that authoritarian social norms will diminish over time and so will have less of a moderating influence on the damage done to children by harsh physical punishment.

Some people also try to frame spankings or hitting as ordinary or mild corporal punishment that is very different from physical abuse. However, research literature shows that milder forms of corporal punishment are risk factors for more severe forms of physical abuse. So, milder forms sometimes escalate into something much harsher. Also, where rates of corporal punishment are high, there are also higher rates for other forms of violence including homicide and domestic violence such as intimate partner abuse. Corporal punishment is part of a larger pattern of societal acceptance of violence. These are some of the reasons why the United Nations has defined any form of corporal punishment as physical abuse.

We also know that many parents regret using corporal punishment. The proportion of parents who say that it is necessary to use corporal punishment to rear a child properly is smaller than the proportion that say they actually use such punishments, according to research from more than 30 countries. This highlights a disconnection between beliefs and behaviour. It suggests that, when parents use physical punishment, they do so not because they think it is a good childrearing strategy but perhaps because they are angry and they take those feelings out on the child in the heat of the moment.

Perhaps the most compelling lesson from research is that no-one has found evidence that corporal punishment is good for children. And there are also other ways to produce desired effects in children’s behaviours. We should focus our efforts on helping parents to understand and use these alternatives.

Policy Implications

The international movement legally to ban corporal punishment, implemented in 43 countries to date, is well founded and has the potential to alter norms about the acceptability of corporal punishment and to improve children’s psychological and behavioral adjustment.

Practical Implications

Clinicians across countries should advise parents against using corporal punishment, even in the context of parent-child relationships that are otherwise warm, and should assist parents in finding other ways to manage children’s behaviour problems.

Jennifer E. Lansford

Jennifer E. Lansford

Research Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy and Faculty Fellow, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University, USA

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Original research and references

  1. Lansford J et al. Corporal Punishment, Maternal Warmth, and Child Adjustment: A Longitudinal Study in Eight Countries Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 43:4, 2014