The Link Between Childhood Spanking, Mental Health Issues & Addiction

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/08/17

In a recent study, researchers set out to determine whether childhood spankings could lead to lifelong consequences.

Mother pointing finger of blame toward daughter

In recent years, much research has focused on the effects of spanking on the development of children, much of it coming to similar conclusions—that spanking kids can have detrimental impacts.

Now, another study adds to the mounting evidence about the harms of the disciplinary practice, finding a link between spanking in childhood and depression, suicidality, and addiction issues later in life.

The study, out of the University of Michigan, was published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect. It hoped to determine whether spanking should be considered an adverse childhood experience—traumatic or neglectful events in childhood that can lead to lifelong consequences. Other examples of adverse childhood experiences include having an incarcerated family member, abuse or neglect in the home or towards the child, substance misuse in a household, or mental illness in a household.

According to this new research, spanking should also be considered an adverse childhood experience and should be addressed in violence prevention efforts. "Placing spanking in a similar category to physical/emotional abuse experiences would increase our understanding of these adult mental health problems," study co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor said in a release from the University of Michigan.

To determine this, researchers looked at data from the CDC-Kaiser ACE study, which included more than 8,300 people between ages 19 and 97. Approximately 55% of respondents reported being spanked during childhood, with men more likely to report being spanked than women. White respondents were less likely to report being spanked than respondents of color, aside from Asian respondents. 

In a book published earlier this year, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, author Stacey Patton explores the relationship of the Black-American community to corporal punishment, and why it’s an especially complex topic to tackle.

“[Black children] were always a problem described by the larger white world, and our parents internalized those messages, and you could see them come out in the way they parented us from a place of fear,” Patton told Slate in April. “And so the beatings were designed as some kind of [preventative measure] to save us from going to prison, for example.”

Among those who reported having been spanked, they also showed increased odds for suicide attempts, moderate-to-heavy drinking, and the use of illicit substances—above even those who had experienced physical or emotional abuse in childhood.

This study is part of a larger canon of research pointing to the detrimental impacts of corporal punishment, which is significant considering that approximately 60% of children worldwide will receive some sort of physical punishment, according to UNICEF.

Research cited in The Atlantic last year concluded, “There is no evidence that spanking does any good for children and all evidence points to the risk of it doing harm.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
britni headshot.png

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.