Corporal Punishment’S Contribution To Mental Health Issues

Parents debate constantly over the best methods used to discipline children. There are still dozens of individuals out there who believe that corporal punishment is and will always be the best way to monitor a child’s behavior. A general definition of corporal punishment is physical harm inflicted on a child to instill discipline. Examples of corporal punishment used in the past would be spanking, pinching, slapping, or hitting with a blunt object. Many countries today have outlawed the use of corporal punishment because of the research done on the side effects of this form of discipline. Some of those side effects are the development of psychiatric conditions, the tendency to abuse alcohol, and behavioral problems resulting in trouble with the law. Many of these side effects begin to develop in early childhood and adolescents and is shown to carry on into adulthood. Researchers claim that the effects we are seeing from these individuals have been caused not only by the consistent use of physical punishment, but the style of parenting and their supportiveness towards the child. By bringing awareness to this issue it may be possible to eliminate the use of corporal punishment as a discipline method.

For many decades people thought that if corporal punishment was used infrequently or with little bodily harm, that there would be no consequences of the behavior. Parents continue to use this type of punishment on their children, especially in early childhood, when they are most vulnerable to the consequences and are just beginning to understand the meaning behind discipline.Matthew K. Muluaney and Carolyn J. Mebert (2007) wanted to bring awareness to the issues found in other studies that suggest corporal punishment in a non-abusive way does not have a negative impact on the child. They used a longitudinal study to determine the effects of spanking on young children. They found that the parent’s discipline methods, being physical punishment, would result in the child exhibiting more behavior problems. It’s important to note that this study only observes the behaviors of children 36 months to 1st grade, around the ages of 6 or 7. It still stands to reason that in comparison with children who did not receive corporal punishment, this form of discipline has the worst outcomes for the child’s development. There is the possibility of these behavior issues carrying on into adolescents and manifesting itself into mental health issues and lack of interpersonal skills which we see in further studies on this topic.

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While in young children it appears, physical punishment can influence behavior problems, when this type of discipline continues into adolescents, we see other negative effects on development. Tracie O. Afifi, Douglas A. Brownridge, Brian J Cox, and Jitender Sareen (2006) used data from the National Comorbidity Survey, looking at the prevalence of corporal punishment regarding discipline and the effects of which this choice led to the risk of children developing psychiatric conditions. The results were that 35.5% of parents did not use physical punishment, 48% reported at least experiencing the use of corporal punishment and 16.5% experienced what this study would consider physical abuse. Even after factoring in outside elements, such as poverty, genetics and other sociodemographic conditions, they found children who were physically punished throughout childhood were at a greater risk of developing a psychiatric disorder later in life.Compared with individuals who had not received any form of physical punishment the individuals in this study were found to have a greater risk of experiencing major depression disorder, alcohol addiction, and behavioral problems. Afifi et al. (2006) suggest that for future research, there should be a deeper focus on why this form of punishment is being used and why some people who experience corporal punishment experience adverse effects while others do not.

Although there is a good amount of research that says experiencing physical punishment has detrimental effects on a child’s health, it’s also important to take into consideration how frequent the action is occurring. As you’ll find in the study by Heather A. Turner and David Finkelhor (1996), depending on how frequent corporal punishment was used, it led to different effects on the individuals. They were specifically looking at the effects of frequent corporal punishment and parental support as it contributes to the negative effects of discipline. By using corporal punishment in the stress process model, they were able to determine the effects this form of discipline has on the child’s mental health. They used a sample of 52.1% male and 47.9% females ranging from 10-16 years of age. 30% of the sample had been physically punished within the last year. They found that even when used infrequently, compared to children who had never been physically punished, these children were worse off psychologically. Something interesting they discovered was parents who were highly supportive to their children, but used corporal punishment were producing more stress for their child, because children weren’t sure what to expect from the parent. “The findings suggest however that using physical punishment is not beneficial to the well-being of children or adolescents, even in the context of a supportive parent-child relationship” (Turner &Finkelhor, 1996).

Psychiatric disorders are just a few of the consequences that have been correlated with the use of corporal punishment on children. There are also other long-term effects of this type of discipline as we see in the data provided by David M. Fergusson, and Michael T. Lynskey (1997).They completed a longitudinal study that looked at reports of corporal punishment during childhood to observe any long-term consequences that resulted from physical punishment used on a child. To avoid ethical issues during research, they had to complete a longitudinal study that followed the child’s care from birth to 18 and only then were they allowed to address any mistreatment or physical punishment they might have received throughout their childhood. They found that 10.8 % of the participants reported that both parents never used corporal punishment. 77.7% of the sample said both parents rarely used physical punishment, and 7.6% said that at least one parental figure used corporal punishment regularly. There was a small percentage that reported that they were punished far too often or in an abusive way, which when combined added up to just under 4% of the sample. They found various outcomes from the reports, suggesting that corporal punishment contributed to high rates of mental health issues, substance abuse and increased trouble with law enforcement. The study suggests that the use of physical punishment in childhood contributes to negative developmental issues such as the ones stated previously, which carry on from adolescents into early adulthood. After considering any outside factors, they concluded that children who experience corporal punishment are 1-3 times more likely to experience developmental issues than those who had never experienced physical punishment at all. “The findings of this study reinforce concerns about the longer-term impact of exposure to physical maltreatment in childhood” (Fergusson & Lynskey, 1997).

Another factor which seems to play a key role in the negative affects an individual has after receiving corporal punishment, is the relationship they have with the offending parent. Several studies in the past have looked at parental issues that may factor into the use of corporal punishment, but not on the effects of the actual relationship between the child and the parent. Eytan Bachar, Laura Canetti, Omer, Bonne, Atara K DeNou, and Arieh Y. Shalev (1997) set up a study that observed the negative effects of corporal punishment on Israeli high school students using questionnaires given out in school. By comparing the results of the questionnaires on different scaling systems, they found a correlation between the frequent use of physical punishment on adolescents, parenting styles/ patterns and lower mental well-being in the child. Their data concluded that the more frequent physical punishment was used, the more likely the child would experience mental distress and overall lower wellbeing. Those students who had better parental bonding recorded better mental health statuses in comparison to those receiving physical punishment. There was also evidence that shows that children with lower parental bonding scores were more likely to receive the negative health impacts of corporal punishment. “It is hoped that the findings of the present study will contribute to efforts to raise public awareness of the harmful effects of physical punishment on children” (Bachar, Canetti et al., 1997).

The controversy of whether corporal punishment should be used as a form a discipline continues. There will always be those individuals who support this method of punishment because they are not aware of the consequences that come with physically harming a child. There has been much research done on the effects of physical abuse and mistreatment of children, but no one has paid much attention to the impact that is being made when corporal punishment is used during childhood. Any form of physical punishment, even if the act is performed by a caring parent, with whom they share a bond, is still impacting the child in an adverse way. As stated by several researchers, even if it is not a frequent method of punishment, when a parent chooses to use this form of discipline they are negatively impacting their child’s well-being. There is a direct correlation between physical punishment and mental health issues later in life. Not to mention abuse/dependence on alcohol, and behavioral problems; many of these children end up becoming violent parents themselves. You must ask the question of when this cycle of violence and abuse is going to end. Because even if corporal punishment is not considered by the law abuse, or illegal in any way, the impact that we are seeing is the same effects that we find in survivors of domestic/sexual abuse. There is very clear evidence of the impact corporal punishment has on the mental health of a child. It’s often difficult, especially when researching a topic such as corporal punishment to address these difficult issues. You must be mindful of the ethical barriers that may come into play when examining participants who are both underage and may also be victims of physical abuse. As seen by Afifi et al. (2006), Furgusson and Lynskey (1997), and Mulvaney and Merbert (2007), they had some difficulties using longitudinal studies with children, because of mandatory reporting. They had to take precautions with the participants selected, and often there were limitations preventing clearer findings. Turner and Finkelhor (1996) as well as Bachar et al. (1997) used a simpler method of collecting data that did not obstruct their research. Using a less intrusive form of data collection, surveys and questionnaires were used by these two studies to collect data pertaining to the use of corporal punishment during one’s childhood. This method was simpler and provided the necessary information, however there is always the question of validity when it comes to retrospective surveys. Future research is defiantly warranted on this topic, because we are entering a point where there are various other discipline methods in which corporal punishment can be compared. Researchers and social scientists can bring more awareness to this issue with additional data and more current findings on the impact of corporal punishment on the likelihood of developing mental health issues.


Afifi, Tracie O., Douglas A. Brownridge, Brian J. Cox, and Jitender Sareen. 2006. “Physical Punishment, Childhood Abuse and Psychiatric Disorders.” Child Abuse and Neglect, 30(10).

Bachar, Eytan, Canetti, Laura, Bonne, Omer, DeNour, Atara. K., & Shalev, Arieh Y. (1997). Physical punishment and signs of mental distress in normal adolescents. Adolescence, 32(128), 945-958.

Fergusson, David M. and Michael T. Lynskey. 1997. “Physical Punishment/Maltreatment During Childhood and Adjustment in Young Adulthood.” Child Abuse and Neglect, 21(7):617–30.

Mulvaney, Matthew K. and Carolyn J. Mebert. 2007. “Parental Corporal Punishment Predicts Behavior Problems in Early Childhood.” Journal of Family Psychology, 21(3):389–97.

Turner, Heather A. and David Finkelhor. 1996. “Corporal Punishment as a Stressor Among Youth.” Journal of Marriage and Family 58:155–66.