A child who is spanked, slapped, grabbed or shoved as a form of punishment runs a higher risk of becoming an adult who suffers from a wide range of mental and personality disorders, even when that harsh physical punishment was occasional and when the child experienced no more extreme form of violence or abuse at the hands of a parent or caregiver, says a new study.
Among adults who reported harsh physical punishment short of physical or sexual abuse, psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety disorders, mania and drug or alcohol dependency were between 2% and 5% more common. And more complex psychiatric illnesses marked by paranoia, antisocial behavior, emotional dependency and narcissism were between 4% and 7% more likely, according to the study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The increase in mental disorders among those who were hit or physically punished as children was seen even in families where no family dysfunction or clear evidence of parental mental illness was reported, suggesting that the higher risk of psychiatric woes was not necessarily genetically inherited. Even those who reported harsh physical punishment on a "sometimes" basis were at elevated risk of developing psychiatric disease in adulthood. And boys and girls who experienced such physical punishment were equally likely to suffer mental illness as adults.
The Canadian authors of the report, which is based on data collected from nearly 35,000 adult Americans, said their findings underscore that spanking and other forms of harsh physical punishment are a matter not just of private behavior but of public health.
They concluded that the nation's physicians should explicitly tell parents that physical punishment, including spanking, smacking and slapping, "should not be used on children of any age."
Pediatricians would need to instruct some parents in the fundamentals of positive reinforcement and other positive parenting approaches to correcting unwanted behavior in children, the authors wrote. But discouraging harsh physical discipline -- a response to child behavior practiced by close to half of American parents -- could yield important payoffs, the authors wrote, concluding that "reducing physical punishment may help to decrease the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population."
Among the adult mental illnesses most strongly linked to a history of harsh physical punishment in childhood were mania (an adult diagnosis 5.2% more likely in those who reported harsh physical punishment); alcohol abuse or dependence (3.4% more likely); and drug abuse or dependence (3% more likely).
Adults physically punished as children were even more likely to be diagnosed with personality disorders: Those who experienced such discipline were 7.2% more likely to be diagnosed as adults with schizotypal personality disorders, in which a strong pattern of odd or paranoid thinking results in job loss, relationship failures and other woes; they were 5.5% more likely to get a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, in which low levels of empathy and moral responsibility result in illegal behavior and hurtful relationships; they were 4.7% more likely to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality characterized by extreme egotism and self-regard; and 4.6% more likely to have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, in which unpredictable swings of neediness, narcissism and risk-taking often result in a string of failed relationships.
The latest study found that in all, only 6% of respondents reported they had been "pushed, grabbed, slapped, shoved or hit" by a parent or other adult in the home before the age of 18. That is far less than in another study, which reported that roughly 48% of adults said they were physically punished during childhood. The current study found that reports of harsh physical punishment were more common in African American homes than in Caucasian, Asian American or Pacific Islander households. But the researchers also found what they described as "a surprising finding": that as an adult's reported education and income levels increased, so did his or her likelihood of having experienced harsh physical punishment as a child.
The practice of spanking appears to be widespread in the United States, and a parent's right to discipline a child physically -- short of hits that leave bruises or worse -- rarely brings legal repercussions. But in recent years, widely circulated videos of parents spanking or striking their children with repeated blows have sparked angry public debates about the practice.
The American Academy of Pediatricians already has adopted position statements that strongly oppose hitting a child for any reason. But the authors suggest that pediatricians may need to be more specific about what they oppose and more helpful in suggesting other parental strategies to induce desired child behavior.
You can read the study online here.