Despite some short-term improvements in behavior, corporal punishment (i.e. spanking) causes children to become more aggressive and significantly increases antisocial behavior, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In one study, young children who were spanked more than twice a month at age 3 were more aggressive at 5. Those same children at age 9 exhibited negative behaviors and lower receptive vocabulary scores, the research found.
What's more, a study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that parents who use corporal punishment to dissuade antisocial behavior actually increase it.
“The negative impact of corporal punishment cuts across all conditions,” says Dr. Shahnour Yaylayan, a psychiatrist at the Franciscan Behavioral Health Center in Dyer who specializes in children and adolescent psychiatry. “Some children suffer from conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), or oppositional defiant disorder. What we see in many cases is that children suffering from these conditions experience more corporal punishment from their caregivers.”
Such children can frustrate caregivers who may turn to corporal punishment to try to remedy behaviors. “Spanking a child may result in short-term behavior improvement,” says Yaylayan, who also works with family members as part of the treatment program. “That will reinforce the idea that corporal punishment worked.”
However, the opposite usually occurs, even in kids without disorders. “Children will experience a significant increase in their own aggressive behavior toward others,” he says. “They live what they learn.”
He says corporal punishment puts a strain on every family member. Siblings and caregivers feel the tension, creating a circle of negativity. “When we see a child who exhibits behavior issues, we inevitably treat the entire family,” he says. “And that’s a good thing, because consistency is very important.”
So, how should caregivers handle the situation?
“Instead of emotional, negative treatment, we need to use a series of rules and consequences with children,” Yaylayan advises.
A chart that displays those things will help children remember and breed consistency, he says: “Children need to understand what they did and why they received a consequence. Caregivers need to be consistent and calm.”
Timeouts or the loss of a toy, game or television are examples of repercussions children can relate to. “It’s also important for caregivers to remember that the concept of time is different for a child,” Yaylayan says. “If you ground them for one month, they will see it as forever, and may behave badly. They feel they have nothing to lose.”
He encourages the use of a contract between caregiver and child: “Write out the agreement. A reward for proper behavior, a consequence for inappropriate behavior. Make it clear and easy for the child to understand.”
He adds that caregivers should praise children for good behavior: “Pay more attention to good deeds and less to negative behavior. If they want attention, they’ll learn good deeds get it.”