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

Content type
Short article

August 2021


Kristel Alla

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 their behaviour.1 Physical punishment commonly involves smacking, spanking, slapping or hitting (with a hard object such as a belt, stick or a cane).1 It can also include forcing a child to kneel, sit or stand in uncomfortable positions or on painful objects.2

How common is physical punishment?

It is estimated that worldwide around six in 10 children aged 2–14 years experience physical punishment by a caregiver.3 In Australia, we have an incomplete picture of the use and effects of physical punishment.4, 5 Surveys indicate 50–80% of Australian parents use physical punishment in disciplining their children.5 Surveys of the attitudes of Australian parents note:

  • The majority (80%) experienced physical punishment when they were a child.6
  • Around half (51%) had used it on their own children.6
  • Around half (51%) believe it is never acceptable to use physical discipline with a child.7

Australian parents are often uncertain about what is reasonable and acceptable in physical punishment and where the line is for abuse.5

What does the evidence tell us about physical punishment?

Key issues around evidence stop us from gaining a full picture about physical punishment. Stigma around talking about what happens behind closed doors at home and traditional power relationships in families mean children often do not report physical punishment.5,8 Online surveys commonly provide the best available evidence but can be limited by participant numbers and vested interests. Because the topic is complex, it can be difficult to conclude with certainty that physical punishment caused negative outcomes for children. It would also be unethical to conduct an experimental study whereby some children are deliberately punished and others are not.

Despite these issues, evidence from various research approaches and methods consistently links physical punishment with harm to children.9,10, 11,13 Good evidence suggests that physical punishment does not reduce defiant or aggressive behaviour nor does it promote long-term positive behaviour in children.11,14,15,16 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).17

Research links physical punishment to risks of harm to children’s cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional development.12,18,19,20,21,22 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 similar 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.19 Other studies and reviews have added that stress from physical punishment for children can negatively affect their brain development.18,23 In addition, physical discipline can quickly and unintentionally escalate to abuse.24, 25,26

The adverse impacts from physical punishment from 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.27,28 Other studies have found associations between physical punishment in childhood and intimate partner violence as an adult, and an increased risk of physical abuse.24,26

Peak bodies of paediatricians in Australia have published position statements against the use of physical punishment. For example, the Paediatric & Child Health Division of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians in their position paper have said that physical punishment is an outdated practice with adverse consequences in the long term for the child’s health, behaviour and emotional wellbeing.29


There is strong evidence to suggest that physical punishment harms children.30 Sector professionals working with families should focus on strategies that steer parents away from physical punishment to alternative behaviour management strategies.

Further reading


1. 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. Geneva, Switzerland: The United Nations. Retrieved from tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f8&Lang=en

2. 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.

3. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). (2014). Hidden in plain sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children . New York: The United Nations. Retrieved from www.unicef.org/publications/index_74865.html

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Relationships Australia. (2017). Online survey: Corporal punishment. Retrieved from www.relationships.org.au/what-we-do/research/online-survey/ april-2017-corporal-punishment

7. Rhodes, A. (2018). Child behaviour: How are Australian parents responding. Parkville, Victoria: Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne. Retrieved from www.rchpoll.org.au/polls/child-behaviour-how-are-australian-parents-responding

8. Dodd, C. (2011). Ending corporal punishment of children: A handbook for working with and within religious communities . Nottingham, UK: Russell Press. Retrieved from resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/4420/pdf/4420.pdf

9. 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.

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.

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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. Olson, S. L., Choe, D. E., & Sameroff, A. J. (2017). Trajectories of child externalizing problems between ages 3 and 10 years: Contributions of children’s early effortful control, theory of mind, and parenting experiences. Development and Psychopathology, 29(4), 1333–1351.

17. 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

18. 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.

19. Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Family Psychology, 30 (4), 453–469.

20. Gershoff, E. T., Sattler, K. M., & Ansari, A. (2018) Strengthening causal estimates for links between spanking and children’s externalizing behavior problems. Psychological Science, 29(1), 110–120.

21. 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.

22. Zulauf, C. A., Sokolovsky, A. W., Grabell, A. S., & Olson, S. L. (2018). Early risk pathways to physical versus relational peer aggression: The interplay of externalizing behavior and corporal punishment varies by child sex. Aggressive Behavior, 44(2), 209–220.

23. 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.

24. 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.

25. Porzig-Drummond, R. (2015). ‘Help, not punishment’: Moving on from physical punishment of children. Children Australia, 40(1), 43–57.

26. Poulsen A. (2018). The role of corporal punishment of children in the perpetuation of intimate partner violence in Australia. Children Australia, 43, 32–41.

27. 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.

28. 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.

29. Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP). (2013). Position statement: Physical punishment of children. Sydney, NSW: The Royal Australasian College of Physicians Paediatric & Child Health Division. Retrieved from www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/policy-and-adv/pchd/physical-punishment-of-children.pdf?sfvrsn=dab4351a_2

30. Heilmann, A., Mehay, A., Watt, R. G., Kelly, Y., Durrant, J. E., van Turnhout, J. et al. (2021). Physical punishment and child outcomes: A narrative review of prospective studies. The Lancet, 398(10297), 355–364.

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