Parenting and the Use of Corrective Violence

Laying on angry parental hands in physical punishment does more harm than good.

Posted Sep 22, 2014

While I couldn’t speak to the research, I did reflect on the use of corrective violence (spanking, swatting, switching, slapping, strapping, squeezing, shaking, and the like) by parents on young children as it has been reported to me on occasion by adolescents looking back on this scary and painful, memorable and formative, experience.

In these situations, parents, often in some degree of frustration or fury, were out to teach the young child “a lesson” for some misbehavior that the little girl or boy “would never forget.” In this objective, the parents usually succeeded, but not exactly in teaching what they intended, and to a lasting cost. Rather than instruct the errant child, the parent decides to overpower.

Think of it this way. To a child of a few years old, a parent is a person with unlimited power, a towering giant to look up to, to depend upon, to provide protection, to love, and to trust. However, when this awesome, loving giant turns dangerous and attacks in violence, then the little child’s view of that giant is permanently changed. “How could my parent want to hurt me so?” The primary lesson learned is: offend this giant, and she or he may inflict bodily harm.

Now the physically hurtful exercise of punitive power by the parent can become remembered in a sad way not just for the child, but for affecting the parent’s ongoing relationship to the child as well. Afterwards, the child, and later the adolescent, may never have full confidence in that parent again, even after the adolescent’s growth has diminished the giant size and image of the mom or dad in the teenager’s eyes.

Then there are cases where a parent is determined at all costs to assert control over their defiant teenager. “I’ll show you what happens when you act like that! I’ll show you who is boss! I’ll teach you to respect me!”

Even if the parent momentarily prevails, ongoing damage to the relationship is usually done. The adolescent comes away feeling humiliated and deeply resentful of this resort to superior force to get the parent’s way. Adult might that feels "right" to the angry parent, feels unforgivingly "wrong" to the defeated teenager who has now been taught not respect for parental authority, but contempt.

In time, the child, the adolescent, may forgive the violent episode; but she or he is unlikely to forget it. From what I've heard from young people, some cherished part of their attachment to the parent has been broken. “I never thought my parent would treat me like that!”

Corrective violence is an abuse of parental power. The laying on of angry parental hands in punishment can do lasting harm: the child's basic trust in safety with that parent can be lost.

Further issues concerning the use of physical force by parents are discussed in next week's blog. 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book: “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.)

Next week’s entry: Parenting and the Use of Physical Force