Smacking Young Children Could Lead To Lasting Mental Health Issues: Study

Ally Villar
·4-min read

When disciplining children, we like to believe that it’s to their best interest and hope it teaches them to make more responsible choices in the future. Overall, as parents, we always want the best for our kids and want to prevent any physical or emotional abuse that could affect the way they grow up by setting reasonable punishments. 

However, in Singapore, a study by research agency YouGov revealed that the majority (70%) of parents here think that physical punishment is sometimes necessary. 

But there’s a fine line between discipline and punishment that often gets blurred over. For example, smacking your kids: does it cross that line?

A recent study published in the journal Child, Abuse and Neglect suggested that smacking could have long-lasting effects on young children. It may lead them to suffer from poor mental health and have behavioural problems once they become teenagers. 

Children Suffer Long-Term Effects From Smacking

effects of smacking children
effects of smacking children

Image Source: iStock

Researchers from UCL saw that kids who had “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) were subjected to poorer outcomes in life as compared to those who did not. 

With previous findings by UCL researchers that led to the smacking ban in Scotland, the study authors looked into the long-term effects of adverse experiences among children between the ages 3 and 14 years old. They analysed responses from a sample of over 8,000 individuals from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which involved a survey conducted for a research project following 19,000 children born between 2000 and 2001 in the UK.

The data gathered was provided at six points throughout the survey’s participants’ childhood experiences when they were nine months old and three, five, seven, eleven and 14 years old.

Parents were then asked how often they smacked their kids as punishment or what else they would do when they misbehave like sending them to their room or shouting. They were also asked other questions regarding parental conflict, alcohol misuse and psychiatric disorders. 

The results were then matched with information from the MCS to look into their kids’ behaviour and well-being regarding whether they ever fought with other children or exhibited a range of emotional problems.

Their findings showed that two-thirds of the children experienced one ACE or more when they were 3 years old. They also found that nearly one in five experienced two ACEs and one in six experienced three or more. Authors of the study said this showed how those who experienced no ACES had better mental health outcomes than those who had three or more ACEs that led to them having the poorest outcome. 

The most common adverse childhood experiences were parental depression, harsh parenting, smacking, use of force between parents and parental alcohol misuse.

Researchers also found that boys were slightly more likely than girls to be smacked and parented harshly. Boys also had a higher chance of exhibiting challenging behaviour. But other than this, the overall results found no significant gender differences regarding the effects to the children’s mental health. 

“It comes as no surprise that those children who have no or few adverse experiences as young children fare best of all and that those who have more negative experiences are more likely to behave antisocially and have poor mental health such as anxiety and depressive symptoms,” said Dr Leonardo Bevilacqua, the study’s first author. “Our research, however, shows just how long those problems can persist at what is such an important and formative part of a young person’s life.”

Image Source: iStock

Parental Conflict And Depression Were Linked To Children’s ‘Internalising Problems’

Authors of the study also found that parental conflict and parental depression were strongly connected to the children’s ‘internalising problems’ which hindered them from having confidence and becoming nervous around new situations, resulting in more worrisome, down-hearted or tearful. The more they experience bad things growing up, these more likely these behavioural problems increase as they get older all the way to 14 years old.

Receiving physical punishment and harsh parenting as a child was also associated with worse mental health outcomes from childhood to adolescence. This was particularly connected with ‘externalising problems’ such as temper tantrums. 

There are several limitations to the study like considering other influences on the child’s wellbeing. Still, the authors believe their study can further support existing calls to abolish physical punishment within families completely. 

“Our findings around the stark links between harsh parenting and physical punishment and poor mental health through childhood and into adolescence provide a clear message to policy-makers on the need to protect children and educate parents,” added Dr Bevilacqua from the UCL Institute of Education, Departement of Psychology and Human Development. 


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