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Further Support Against Physical Punishment for Discipline

New research further strengthens the case against using physical punishment.

“Honestly–I’m scared of what I might do. I’ve lightly hit her on her bottom but more recently I started hitting her a little harder. I just can’t stand when she stubbornly yells ‘No’ to me.” Kelly teared up as she described her frustration disciplining Julie, her four-year-old daughter. “I had promised myself I would never do this. Then I convinced myself that it was no big deal. But I know it is!”

Kelly, a client who sought my services several years ago, acknowledged that her frustration increasingly aroused anger. Initially, she convinced herself that physical punishment was acceptable–even though it aroused her guilt. Fortunately, she decided to seek alternative approaches to discipline her child.

The use of physical punishment for discipline

The use of physical punishment to discipline children is a practice that has spanned generations and is still very much with us. Such punishment refers to any physical force that leads a child to experience some degree of pain or discomfort with the intention of altering the child’s behavior. This includes spanking, reportedly still used by over 80% of American parents (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016).

All too often, those who advocate such punishment report that they were similarly disciplined and that it helped them to behave more appropriately. Additionally, those mental health professionals who believe in its value have further supported its use. Also, the media have all too frequently presented discussions of such discipline as open for debate.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child declared physical punishment “legalized violence” against children” that should be eliminated. While 192 countries have signed the treaty, the United States and Somalia are the only ones that have failed to ratify it. Those who oppose it believe the sovereignty of the United States and parents, as well, would be threatened by such an agreement.

Fortunately, in more recent years, the number of states that allow such punishment has decreased. According to a 2017 study, 28 states prohibited corporal punishment, 7 states did not prohibit it and 15 expressly permitted it (NPR, 2017).

The negative impact of physical punishment used for discipline

It cannot be denied that physical punishment is a form of assault and is always considered as such when the victim is an adult. Calling it “assault” gives the proper label to such behavior. “Generally, the essential elements of assault consist of an act intended to cause an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact” (thefreedictionary)

In recent decades there has been an escalation in research to determine the long-term impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), much of it originally performed by Kaiser Permanente ( These include forms of child maltreatment such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse as well as physical and emotional neglect, exposure to mother being treated violently, household challenges such as divorce or separation, parental incarceration and a household member with substance abuse problems, mental illness and/or suicide attempts. Adverse Childhood Events have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death.

Spanking has not yet been included on the list of ACE’s. However, research by Afifi, Gershoff, Merrick, et. al. reviewed data from the original CDC-Kaiser studies (2017) . They concluded and recommended that spanking should be considered an ACE and considered in efforts to prevent violence.

Further support for this recommendation can be found in recent research findings that provide more powerful evidence against physical punishment. Following a review and statistical analysis of numerous experiments and quasi-experiments, “…the preponderance of evidence links physical punishment with detrimental child outcomes (Gershoff, Goodman, et. al., 2018). They report no evidence that such discipline reduces these negative outcomes. More specifically, they find that “(a) Research on physical punishment has met the requirements for causal conclusions, (b) Research on spanking and physical punishment identify links to detrimental outcomes for children, (c) Spanking and physical punishment contribute to the same harms as physical abuse, (d) Spanking and physical punishment are disavowed by a number of professional organizations outside of psychology; and (e) Human rights organizations and 53 countries agree that spanking and physical punishment reflect violence that violates a child’s human rights.”

Physical punishment and anger as an adult

Many of the patients who have sought my services for anger management have been victims of physical punishment as a child. They often state “I deserved it” “I was a pretty bad at times” “It was only once in a while.” “It was just a belt. ” or “That’s what parents did at the time.”

And yet, as I’ve observed throughout my years as a therapist, individuals who voice these attitudes all too often lack memory of how they really experienced such punishment. They tend to suppress, minimize or otherwise deny their suffering; their confusion, hurt, anger, shame and feelings of betrayal. And through this process they often lose connection with themselves, the awareness and recognition of their feelings. Lacking the capacity to be empathic with their own pain then contributes to a diminished capacity to be empathic with the suffering of others. It is no wonder then, that they consequently have fewer inhibitions about using physical punishment.

Although described as a form of discipline, physical punishment frequently occurs as a result of anger, used by parents in response to feelings such as frustration, powerlessness, and disrespect when children fail to adhere to their expectations. It’s understandable why physical punishment is so frequently used as a form of discipline. It is easy and simple. Such “discipline” requires minimal self-reflection, self-control or learning of more constructive and compassionate approaches. Like other forms of anger, it may work in the short-term through intimidation and the arousal of fear. As such, it can be rewarding for the adult who experiences immediate control over a child when embracing such punishment.

Physical punishment is a betrayal of trust

What makes physical punishment especially abusive is that children look to their parents for love, support, guidance and example. As such, physical discipline is a betrayal of a child’s trust and of a parent’s role to protect a child from harm. It undermines a child’s feeling of safety and trust essential for sharing with a parent, feelings and thoughts that might contribute to their behavior. It diminishes a child’s sense of safety in seeking parents out to deal with conflict and life’s challenges. Any form of such punishment is a violation of a child’s human spirit, one that has lasting implications for the child’s sense of trust, self-worth, and regard for others. Additionally, a study of 100 families found that “Children who were physically punished were more likely to endorse hitting as a means of resolving their conflicts with peers and siblings” (Gershoff, 2012).

Most poignantly, physical discipline leads to minimal understanding by the parent or child of what may have contributed to a child’s misbehavior. And it fails to support the child’s development of emotional intelligence, which includes the ability to identify feelings and to regulate them.

General guidelines to reduce physical punishment as discipline

Working to prevent the use of physical punishment should be grounded in those practices identified for the prevention of child abuse. These include strategies that emphasize primary to secondary to tertiary prevention (2017).

Primary prevention involves those activities targeting the general population in an effort to stop mistreatment before it occurs. As such, it is intended to educate the general public, service providers, and decision-makers in an attempt to encourage and support positive parenting.

Secondary prevention activities focus on those individuals who may be at high risk, associated with factors such as poverty, substance abuse, young parental age, parental mental health concerns and parental or child disabilities.

Tertiary prevention activities target families where maltreatment has already occurred. These are intended to reduce the negative consequences of the maltreatment and to prevent its recurrence.

Facing the choice for how to discipline

There is no denial that parenting is difficult. It easily pushes us not only to feel frustrated, but to also feel inadequate. And certainly, financial pressures, time commitments and a broad variety of factors causing stress, can contribute to using a quick and easy approach for child discipline. Nevertheless, learning skills in anger management, parenting, and specifically more constructive and compassionate forms of discipline, form the antidote to using physical punishment. This takes commitment, patience and practice.

Compassion for others and ourselves grows in the context of respect and empathy for others and ourselves. This is the lesson Kelly learned in her counseling as she was helped to reconnect with her own wounds, including physical punishment. In the process she recognized how powerfully impacted she became when told “No” as a child and later as a teen. Taking this path, she developed self-compassion regarding her current challenges as a parent and for her past hurts. At the same time, she expanded compassion for Julie’s frustrations and for her experimenting with her growing empowerment.

Compassion for others and ourselves is most powerfully cultivated in our earliest connections when they consist of trust, support, and safety. If we truly wish to support these attitudes in our children, we need to end physical punishment and commit ourselves to value the importance of more constructive and humane forms of discipline.


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

Afifi, T., Ford, D., Gershoff, E., et. al. (2017) Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 71, September, 24-31.

Gershoff, E., Goodman, G., Miller-Perrin, C., (2018) The strength of the causal evidence against physical punishment of children and its implications for parents, psychologists and policymakers. American Psychologist, Vol. 73 No.5, 626-638.

Gershoff, E., Lansford, J., Sexton, H., ,(2012). Longitudinal links between spanking and children’s externalizing behaviors in a national sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American families. Child Development, 83, 838–843. --(2017)

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016)