By Roy Benaroch, MD
Adding fuel to the debate over corporal punishment, a large study published this summer has found that people who recall harsh physical punishment in childhood are more likely to suffer from mental illness as adults.
Researchers from Canada interviewed almost 35,000 adults, documenting their recollection of harsh physical punishment including slapping or hitting. Adults who recalled severe emotional or physical abuse or neglect were excluded. After adjusting for other factors, the study found that a history of physical punishment was associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. The average increased risk for these problems was about double that of adults who did not recall physical punishment.
The study has some limitations—it looked at adults’ memory of punishment, which may not be accurate. And studies like this cannot determine if physical punishment was the cause of the mental illness. Still, the large sample size and rigorous way that the adults were interviewed certainly supports a connection.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that corporal punishment is not very effective, and can have harmful side effects. Though many parents continue to use spanking and other forms of physical discipline, this study adds to the evidence that hitting your child may not be the best way to teach your child to behave.