The psychological effects of spanking a child may last up to 10 years, a new study has found.
According to researchers at the University of Missouri, spanking during infancy can have a negative impact on a child’s temperament and behaviour into the fifth grade and even their teenage years.
“Long-term studies on the links among parenting, temperament and children’s social behaviours have been limited, especially among racially diverse, low-income populations,” Gustavo Carlo, Millsap professor of diversity at University of Missouri, said in a statement. “Our findings show that differences exist in the roles of parenting, temperament and self-regulation and how they impact a child’s development.”
The research team analyzed data from 1,840 mothers and their children who were enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. All those participating were at – or below the federal poverty level and either identified as European American or African American.
The data was gathered when the children were about 15 months old, 25 months old and then again in the fifth grade. Researchers also included surveys of moms and children, home visits and interviews with fifth-grade teachers.
After combing through the data, researchers found that if African-American children, in particular, experienced severe punishment via spanking at 15 months, they were more likely to show an increase in aggressive and delinquent behaviours by the time they reach the fifth grade.
However, they were also more likely to show positive behaviours as well – for example, helping others.
There was no link found between punishment and negative emotions for European-American children. Instead, the link was found to be between negative emotions (like irritability).
For both groups, though, it was found that good self-regulation was a more likely predictor of better behavioural outcomes.
“This study sort of reaffirms stuff that we’ve already heard repeatedly about how important it is to find alternatives to spanking,” says parenting expert Ann Douglas, who was not a part of the study. “Spanking really damages the parent-child relationship. It encourages the child to fear the parent as opposed to respecting the parent.”
She adds, “Respect is earned and I think we also have to think about how it impacts on the child’s sense of trust and the child’s feeling of being accepted as who they are.”
Douglas also believes spanking is a very short-sighted parenting strategy that can have the opposite effect.
READ MORE: Are time-outs as bad as spanking?
“It prioritizes getting compliance in the second as opposed to looking at the longer term goals, which is the type of relationship you want to have with your child – and the kind of child you hope your child will become,” she says. “It also gives kids a really warped idea about power. Instead of encouraging them to treat other people with respect, you’re modelling the idea that if you’re bigger and have more power than another person then it’s OK to bully them into submission.”
So the best way to get through to a child, Douglas says, is by using alternatives to spanking.
“Talk things through with your child,” she explains. “Use the same kind of communication skills and respect we give to other adults because we want to bring that attitude and approach to our problem solving to our relationships with our kids.”
This isn’t the first study to look at the impacts of spanking on children.
Last year, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin did a meta analysis of 50 years of research on spanking.
The study confirmed that the more children are spanked, the more of a chance of them defying their parents and increasing their anti-social behaviour and aggression. It was also found to impact a child’s mental health and cause cognitive difficulties.