What does the evidence tell us about physical punishment of children?
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. Physical punishment commonly involves smacking, spanking, slapping or hitting (with a hard object such as a belt, stick or a cane). It can also include forcing a child to kneel, sit or stand in uncomfortable positions or on painful objects.
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. In Australia, we have an incomplete picture of the use and effects of physical punishment. Surveys indicate 50–80% of Australian parents use physical punishment in disciplining their children. Surveys of the attitudes of Australian parents note:
- The majority (80%) experienced physical punishment when they were a child.
- Around half (51%) had used it on their own children.
- Around half (51%) believe it is never acceptable to use physical discipline with a child.
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. 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. Good evidence suggests that physical punishment does not reduce defiant or aggressive behaviour nor does it promote long-term positive behaviour in children. 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).
Research links physical punishment to risks of harm to children’s cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional development. 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. Other studies and reviews have added that stress from physical punishment for children can negatively affect their brain development. In addition, physical discipline can quickly and unintentionally escalate to abuse.
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. Other studies have found associations between physical punishment in childhood and intimate partner violence as an adult, and an increased risk of physical abuse.
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.
There is strong evidence to suggest that physical punishment harms children. Sector professionals working with families should focus on strategies that steer parents away from physical punishment to alternative behaviour management strategies.
- If you require information on the circumstances in which a state or territory is mandated to intervene to protect a child, see the CFCA Resource Sheet Australian legal definitions: When is a child in need of protection?
- For a general definition of child abuse and neglect, and definitions of the five commonly regarded subtypes, see the CFCA Resource Sheet What is child abuse and neglect?
- For more information on physical punishment laws in Australia, see the CFCA Resource Sheet Physical punishment legislation.
- For more information on behaviour management strategies for children of all ages see raisingchildren.net.au.
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