Spanking Linked to Anxiety, Aggression

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Children who are spanked tend to be more anxious and aggressive than those who aren’t, but this is less true in cultures where physical punishment is common, a new study shows.

Researchers interviewed mothers and their children in six countries with varying cultural norms regarding physical discipline.

They found that spanking seemed to be associated with more aggressive behavior and increased anxiety in all of the countries.

The association was weakest in Kenya, where physical punishment is culturally accepted and common. It was strongest in Thailand, where the culture generally discourages spanking.

Researcher Jennifer Lansford, PhD, and colleagues conclude that the impact of spanking seems to depend, at least in part, on the child’s view of whether the practice represents good or bad parenting.

Lansford is a research scientist at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy.

“If children see that their friends are also being spanked it becomes a less aberrant experience,” Lansford tells WebMD. “But when this isn’t happening to their friends they may think that they deserve it more because they are a really bad kid or they may have a more negative view of the parent.”

Five Countries, Five Cultures

The study included 336 mothers and their children, who ranged in age from 6 to 17, living in China, India, Italy, Kenya, the Philippines, and Thailand.

The moms were asked how often they physically disciplined the children; both groups were asked to speculate about how often other parents in their country used spanking or other forms of physical discipline (such as slap, grab or shake, beat up) as punishment.

The researchers also asked a series of questions designed to measure aggression and anxiety among the children.

They found that moms in Kenya were most likely to physically discipline their children. That wasn’t a surprise, Lansford says, because spanking in the home and at school is common among people living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Children were least likely to be spanked in Thailand. Again, no surprise, she says, because parenting practices tend to reflect Buddhist teachings, which stress nonviolence.

Mothers in China were the next least likely to use physical discipline, followed by moms in the Philippines, Italy, and India.

More frequent use of physical discipline was less strongly associated with child aggression and anxiety when it was perceived as being more culturally accepted. The findings are published in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development.

Spanking in the U.S.

Americans can best be described as culturally conflicted about spanking. Many parents report having a negative view of the practice, but in one study more than 90% of those surveyed admitted having spanked their children by the age of 3 or 4.

In a 2004 study, Johns Hopkins University researchers examined spanking practices and outcomes among different racial and ethnic groups within the U.S. While spanking was linked to later behavior problems in white children, this was not true of black or Hispanic children who were spanked.

Eric Slade, PhD -- one of the study's researchers -- tells WebMD that spanking is more culturally accepted among blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. than among whites, and this might explain its lack of a link to future behavior.

Since the studies on spanking almost universally rely on self-reported surveys, the impact of spanking on future behavior is very difficult to measure, Slade says.

In a review of the research published in 2002, 27 studies linked spanking with more physically aggressive attitudes toward other children.

“The problem is that we can’t really say from the studies if it is spanking that is causing the behavior, or some other family characteristic that isn’t easily measured,” Slade says.

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By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Lansford, J. Child Development, November/December 2005; vol 76: pp 1234-1246. Jennifer Lansford, PhD, research scientist, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University, Durham, N.C. Eric P. Slade, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, University of Maryland. WebMD Medical News: “Does Spanking Lead to Trouble Later?” WebMD Medical News: “The ‘Bottom Line’ on Spanking.”