A study of parents and adolescents in Canada showed that parents who experienced spanking, physical or emotional abuse in the childhood or lived with a mentally ill person in that period, may be more likely to spank their children. The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Physical and emotional punishments, in forms such as canning, whipping, flogging, beating, imprisonment, shunning or banishment, have been used as methods for disciplining others throughout history. They are still widely used throughout the world, although physical punishments have been outlawed in many of the developed countries of the world.
When children are concerned, physical punishment is typically delivered in the form of spanking. Spanking involves hitting the child (usually) with the hand in an effort to inflict pain without causing injury. It is typically done in response to undesirable behavior by the child. Studies have found that boys are spanked more often than girls and that preschool children are spanked more often than older children and adolescents.
In recent decades, studies have linked the use of physical punishment on children to multiple adverse outcomes in adulthood, including increased likelihood of mental and physical health problems, substance use, aggression, antisocial behavior, poor cognitive behaviors and others.
“Spanking places children at risk for many poor outcomes across the lifespan. It is important to do work that can inform prevention efforts to improve the safety and well-being of children,” said study author Tracie Afifi, a professor at the University of Manitoba and author of “Adverse Childhood Experiences: Using Evidence to Advance Research, Practice, Policy, and Prevention.”
The World Health Organization and many other child-serving organizations recommend that parents and caregivers not use physical punishment (hitting and spanking) on children and adolescents. Ending the practice of physical punishment of children is also a long-standing goal for the UN Convention of the Rights of the child. Sixty-three nations have enacted laws prohibiting physical punishment of children.
In spite of that, estimates show that between 19% and 62.5% of parents still apply physical punishment, with these percentages varying by the age of child and by country. But what determines whether parents will use spanking with their children or not?
To answer this questions, Afifi and her colleagues analyzed data from the Well-Being and Experiences Study from Winnipeg, Manitoba and surrounding communities in Canada. Their goal was to examine whether adverse experiences a person had as a child, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, spanking or household mental illness (living with a person with mental illness in the same household) were associated with the likelihood that their child will be spanked (by them or another caregiver). Participants were 1000 pairs with each pair consisting of an adolescent aged 14-17 years and his/her parent/caregiver.
Parents were asked to self-report “whether the child who participated in the study was ever spanked by any parent or caregiver with their hand on the child’s bottom (bum) when the child was 10 years of age or younger.”
The parents also completed a list of adverse childhood experiences they had experienced before 16 years of age. The list asked about physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, spanking, exposure to intimate partner violence, household substance abuse, neglect and others. They also completed a separate assessment of abuse and neglect (the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire).
Results showed that older parents were a bit less likely to have been spanked in the childhood and the same was the case for parents with higher household incomes. Experiencing physical and emotional abuse as well as living in a household with a person suffering from mental illness was associated with somewhat higher likelihood that the person’s child will be spanked.
However, the strongest association was with parent being spanked in childhood. Parents who reported being spanked in their own childhood were more than twice more likely to report that their child has also been spanked.
“If a parent experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), their child is more likely to be spanked,” Afifi told PsyPost. “This puts children at risk for poor outcomes. Parent’s ACEs history may be an important factor to consider when developing and implementing child maltreatment prevention efforts.”
The study sheds light on the links between childhood experiences of parents and the parenting practices in their adult family. However, it also has limitations that need to be considered. Notably, the study was based on self-reports of both experiences in childhood and of recent/current practices. It also asked about spanking children, a practice that is increasingly seen as socially undesirable. It is possible that parents differed in their willingness to report both being spanked in childhood and spanking their child thus affecting the results.
The topic of spanking remains a source of much controversy as study designs currently available are not able to establish a clear causal link between spanking in childhood and adverse outcomes in adulthood. Namely, it remains insufficiently clear whether the more frequent use of spanking by parents indeed leads to adverse outcomes in adulthood or it is that certain characteristics of children make them both more prone to undesirable behaviors in childhood and adverse outcomes in adulthood.
The paper “An Examination of Parents’ Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) History and Reported Spanking of Their Child: Informing Child Maltreatment Prevention Efforts” was authored by Tracie O. Afifi, Samantha Salmon, Ashley Stewart-Tufescu, and Tamara Taillieu.