Physical punishment legislation

Content type
Resource sheet

August 2021


This resource is designed to inform service providers and practitioners about physical punishment research and legislation. It outlines key state and territory legislation on the use of physical punishment as a means of disciplining children in Australia for parents, early education and child care centres, primary and secondary schools, and alternative care settings.

The information provided is to be used as a guide only and does not cover every piece of legislation or common law. Individuals are encouraged to check the currency of information and consider other legislation and common law that may overlap.

What is physical punishment?

What is physical punishment?

Physical (or corporal) punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain or discomfort to correct or punish a child's behaviour (Rowland, Gerry, & Stanton, 2017; United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC], 2006). Physical punishment commonly involves smacking, spanking, slapping or hitting (with a hard object such as a belt, stick or cane) (Education Act 1994 (Tas.), s 3; Rowland et al., 2017). It can also include activities such as forcing a child to kneel, sit or stand in uncomfortable positions or on painful objects for a length of time (Rowland et al., 2017).

What does the evidence tell us about physical punishment of children?

What does the evidence tell us about physical punishment of children?

Internationally, around six in 10 children aged 2-14 years experience physical punishment by a caregiver (UNICEF, 2014). In Australia, there is an incomplete picture of the use of physical punishment (Durrant et al., 2020). Between 50% and 80% of Australian parents report using physical punishment to discipline their children (Poulsen, 2019). Surveys of the attitudes of Australian parents note the following:

  • The majority (80%) experienced physical punishment when they were a child (Relationships Australia, 2017).
  • Around half (51%) believe it is never acceptable to use physical discipline with a child (Rhodes, 2018).

Australian parents are often uncertain about what is reasonable and acceptable in physical punishment and where the line is for abuse.

There is strong evidence to suggest that physical punishment harms children. Research evidence consistently links physical punishment with negative effects on children (Alampay et al., 2017; Flouri & Midouhas, 2017; Gershoff et al., 2018; Maneta, White, & Mezzacappa, 2017; Piché, Huýnh, Clément, & Durrant, 2016). There is good evidence to suggest that physical punishment does not reduce defiant or aggressive behaviour nor does it promote long-term positive behaviour in children (Flouri & Midouhas, 2017; Ma & Grogan-Kaylor, 2017; MacKenzie, Nicklas, Brooks-Gunn, & Waldfogel, 2015). A systematic review of 53 studies on the use of physical punishment in schools found that it had negative effects on the academic performance of children and resulted in behavioural issues (e.g. violent behaviour and aggressive conduct) (Heekes, Kruger, Lester, & Ward, 2020).

Research links physical punishment to risks of harm to children's cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional development (Durrant & Ensom, 2017; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016; Maneta et al., 2017; Okuzono, Fujiwara, Kato, & Kawachi, 2017). A meta-analysis involving over 160,000 children found that physical punishment can carry the risk of physical abuse (causing a physical injury) and can have negative outcomes for children: mental health and emotional challenges, lower cognitive ability, lower self-esteem, more aggression, more antisocial behaviour and negative relationships with parents (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016). Other studies and reviews have added that stress from physical punishment can negatively affect children's brain development (Durrant & Ensom, 2017; Gershoff, 2016). In addition, physical discipline can quickly and unintentionally escalate into abuse (Afifi, Mota, Sareen, & MacMillan, 2017; Poulsen, 2018).

The adverse impacts from physical punishment during childhood may last into adulthood. Harsh physical punishment (smacking, shoving and pushing) has been linked to anxiety, depression, substance abuse and antisocial behaviours in adulthood in a similar way to child abuse (Afifi, Mota, Dasiewicz, MacMillan, & Sareen, 2012; 2019). Other studies have found associations between physical punishment in childhood and intimate partner violence as an adult, and an increased risk of physical abuse (Afifi et al., 2017; Poulsen, 2018).

Conclusion and further reading

Conclusion and further reading

The acceptability, consequences and legality of using physical punishment towards children are dependent on the context in which the physical punishment takes place. Research evidence to support any positive outcomes associated with physical punishment is limited, and the evidence on negative outcomes is increasing. There are alternative disciplinary measures that can be used.



  • Afifi, T. O., Fortier, J., Sareen, J., & Taillieu, T. (2019). Associations of harsh physical punishment and child maltreatment in childhood with antisocial behaviors in adulthood. JAMA Network Open, 2(1), e187374, 1-10.
  • Afifi, T. O., Mota, N. P., Dasiewicz, P., MacMillan, H. L., & Sareen, J. (2012). Physical punishment and mental disorders: Results from a nationally representative US sample. Pediatrics, 130(2), 184-192.
  • Afifi, T. O., Mota, N., Sareen, J., & MacMillan, H. L. (2017). The relationships between harsh physical punishment and child maltreatment in childhood and intimate partner violence in adulthood. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1-10.
  • Alampay, L. P., Godwin, J., Lansford, J. E., Bombi, A. S., Bornstein, M. H., Chang, L. et al. (2017). Severity and justness do not moderate the relation between corporal punishment and negative child outcomes: A multicultural and longitudinal study. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 41(4), 491-502.
  • Attorney-General's Department (AGD). (2019). Committee on the Rights of the Child List of issues in relation to the combined fifth and sixth reports of Australia. Barton, ACT: Attorney-General's Office. Retrieved from
  • Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (n.d.). National law. Sydney: ACECQA. Retrieved from
  • Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority. (2017). Guide to the Education and Care Services National Law and the Education and Care Services National Regulations 2011. Sydney: ACECQA. Retrieved from
  • Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2017). Twenty-five years of physical punishment research: What have we learned? Journal of Korean Academic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28(1), 20-24.
  • Durrant, J., Stewart-Tufescu, A., Ateah, C., Holden, G., Ahmed, R., Jones, A. et al. (2020). Addressing punitive violence against children in Australia, Japan and the Philippines. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 14, e19, 1-11.
  • Flouri, E., & Midouhas, E. (2017). Environmental adversity and children's early trajectories of problem behavior: The role of harsh parental discipline. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(2), 234-243.
  • Gershoff, E. T. (2016). Should parents' physical punishment of children be considered a source of toxic stress that affects brain development? Family Relations, 65(1), 151-162.
  • Gershoff, E. T., Goodman, G. S., Miller-Perrin, C. L., Holden, G. W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A. E. (2018). The strength of causal evidence against physical punishment of children and its implications for parents, psychologists, and policymakers. American Psychologist, 73(5), 626-638.
  • Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Family Psychology, 30(4), 453-469.
  • Heekes, S.-L., Kruger, C. B., Lester, S. N., & Ward, C. L. (2020). A systematic review of corporal punishment in schools: Global prevalence and correlates. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. doi:10.1177/1524838020925787
  • Ma, J., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2017). Longitudinal associations of neighborhood collective efficacy and maternal corporal punishment with behavior problems in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 53(6), 1027-1041.
  • MacKenzie, M. J., Nicklas, E., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Waldfogel, J. (2015). Spanking and children's externalizing behavior across the first decade of life: Evidence for transactional processes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(3), 658-669.
  • Maneta, E. K., White, M., & Mezzacappa, E. (2017). Parent-child aggression, adult-partner violence, and child outcomes: A prospective, population-based study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 68, 1-10.
  • Okuzono, S., Fujiwara, T., Kato, T., & Kawachi, I. (2017). Spanking and subsequent behavioral problems in toddlers: A propensity score-matched, prospective study in Japan. Child Abuse & Neglect, 69, 62-71.
  • Piché, G., Huýnh, C., Clément, M-È., & Durrant, J. E. (2016). Predicting externalizing and prosocial behaviors in children from parental use of corporal punishment. Infant and Child Development, 26(4), 1-18.
  • Poulsen A. (2018). The role of corporal punishment of children in the perpetuation of intimate partner violence in Australia. Children Australia, 43, 32-41.
  • Poulsen, A. (2019). Corporal punishment of children in the home in Australia: A review of the research reveals the need for data and knowledge. Children Australia, 44(3), 110-120.
  • Relationships Australia. (2017). Online survey: Corporal punishment. Retrieved from
  • Rhodes, A. (2018). Child behaviour: How are Australian parents responding. Parkville, Victoria: Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne. Retrieved from
  • Rowland, A., Gerry, F., & Stanton, M. (2017). Physical punishment of children: Time to end the defence of reasonable chastisement in the UK, USA and Australia. The International Journal of Children's Rights, 25(1), 165-195.
  • UNICEF. (2014). Hidden in plain sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children. New York: The United Nations. Retrieved from
  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). (2006). General comment no. 8: The right of the child to protection from corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment, para. 31. Retrieved from

This resource sheet was updated by Dr Kristel Alla, a Knowledge Translation Specialist at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. The author would like to thank Rachel Carson, Senior Research Fellow with the Family Law and Family Violence team at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, for reviewing this resource sheet.

Feature image by Suzette, CC BY 2.0