Parenting Psychology Research Reports How Harmful Spanking is to Children

Carol Lennox
Child crying with face covered.Photo by Ksenia Makagonova

As a therapist, a parent, and an educator, I have always been against spanking children. And in all of those roles, I’ve had heated disagreements with the proponents of spanking. Including my own parent when my son was little. Actual studies reporting the negative affects of corporal punishment have only been widely available starting in the 2000s, although there are even earlier ones.

In 2012, a research study at the University of Manitoba, in Canada, found that several mental disorders are linked to physical punishment. They include depression, aggression, drug/alcohol abuse and addiction, and anxiety.

Out of 1,300 adults who reported receiving corporal punishment, nearly 20% had experienced depression, and 43% had abused alcohol, compared to 16% and 30% of those who had not been spanked and/or slapped.

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced on November 5, 2018, that corporal punishment “makes kids more aggressive and raises the risk of mental health issues.” (Sege, 2018, November 5). I address the aggression and anxiety issues more fully below.

A New Zealand literature review of 92 studies (Gershoff 2002a) found that corporal punishment resulted in only one desirable behavior, increased immediate compliance. The studies showed no ongoing desirable behavior. Moreover, corporal punishment does nothing to increase moral internalization.

Moral internalization is what all parents want for their children. We want them to internalize values and positive behavior, making those values their own. This includes developing “sensitivity to wrongdoing, and appropriate conduct, and the ability to restrain oneself from misbehavior and to correct damage.” (Kerr, et. al. 2004).
Mother and child hugging.Photo by Sai de Silva

If we are honest, since long term moral internalization is the goal, and spanking only affects immediate compliance, then parents are spanking for their own immediate gratification. It’s a power-assertive act that makes the parent feel powerful in the moment, because they get the result they want. However, since the immediate compliance doesn’t carry over to a change in the child’s overall attitude, or long term better behavior, in my professional opinion, spanking is being used to express the emotions and salve the ego of the parent.

A parent’s ego is salved when immediate compliance is achieved. Emotions that are expressed by the parent who spanks are fear, anger, anxiety, rage, and a desire not to feel helpless in the eyes of others. The child picks up on those emotions. In my own case, the two times I spanked my child was out of a state of fear because he endangered his life. That is no excuse, and I apologized to him at the times and again years later. It was an example of a parent releasing their own emotions onto the child.

Ten of 11 meta-analysis in Gershoff’s review indicate corporal punishment is associated with the following undesirable outcomes (Smith, Ann B. 2006): Decreased moral internalization, increased child aggression, decreased quality of relationship between child and parent, decreased adult mental health, increased possibility of abusing their own children or spouses, increased likelihood of becoming a victim of abuse, and decreased child mental health. Let's look at two of the ones I see in my practice, aggression and anxiety.


It has always been my argument that you can’t tell a child not to hit others when you are hitting them. Children who are spanked will perceive that it’s okay to hit someone younger and smaller. Or that it’s okay to hit helpless people.

27 studies in Gershoff’s analysis strongly indicated a connection between physical punishment and child aggression. Social Learning Theory (Bandura 1969) points to children modeling their behavior after that of their parents.

One of my favorite memories that supports this theory is watching my four year old son follow his father in a mall. His dad threw away his cup when he finished his drink. My son, following immediately behind, reached up and threw his away. My son’s drink was full.

Children model what they see. They also model what they experience. When they are hit by parents, they learn it’s okay to hit, even when authority figures tell them it isn’t. Especially when those authority figures are doing the hitting. In fact, those conflicting messages create cognitive dissonance in children. It can also create rage.

When someone hits you, what is your first response? Without thinking, what do you immediately want to do? Our amygdala, the so-called animal or lizard brain, wants us to hit back. We go into fight, flight, or freeze mode at the first strike.

Except, a child isn’t allowed, nor is big enough, to hit back the parent who is hitting them. So where do the emotions brought up from the amygdala in response to pain and helplessness go? They are internalized. The spanked child has to tamp down their natural human response to being hit. These tamped down emotions can later present as deflected anger, lashing out at a sibling, classmate, or a pet.

These instincts to hit back, and the resulting pushing down of those instincts, also leads to burying that tension in the body. It's the "freeze" in "fight, flight, or freeze." After some time, those frozen emotions become ongoing anxiety.


The pain, fear, and anticipation of likely being hit again, gets stored in the body as tightened muscles, ready to fight, flee, or freeze, and the ongoing sense of doom that shows up as anxiety. The anxiety can become life-long. Many people suffering from anxiety can point to childhoods with an erratic parent. This is the parent who comes home drunk or high. The parent who flies into a rage for little reason. Often, those parents, who are not in control of their own emotions, are spankers or worse.

The child is then on nearly constant alert, ready to freeze, flee, or hide at a moment’s notice. From that constant state of arousal comes anxiety, which is usually diagnosed as General Anxiety Disorder, the condition of being in a state of high alert most of the time.

What about those parents who say, “But I don’t spank when I’m mad." They go on to say that they calm down first. What I answer to those parents is that what they are describing may be even more harmful in terms of creating anxiety in children.

The mental torture of waiting for a physically painful punishment raises anxiety levels. Having pain inflicted from an emotionless parent is also confusing, and increases rage in the child.

Gestalt therapy, which I practice, contends that when rage has no outlet, it is internalized. Rage turned inward is a precursor to anxiety and depression in both childhood and adulthood. It may also play a part in self-harm behaviors, such as cutting and biting oneself. The above referenced studies also indicate that internalized and suppressed rage leads to more acting out and aggression in the future.

Positive Parenting

The better way to go is positive parenting. Some of the main tenets include saying three positive things to your child for each negative one. Provide choices. Redirect undesirable behavior to something desirable for both of you.

Most of all, keep in mind that what you really want for your child, more than obedience, is to model for them and teach them how to be good people. Teach them how to think. Teach them how to make good choices.Guide them with love.


Bandura, A (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification, Holt, Reinhart &Winston, New York.

Gershoff, Elizabeth T. (2013, July 10).” Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children.” Child Development Perspective/Volume 7, issue 3.

Kerr, D.C., N.L. Lopez, S.L.Olson and A.J. Sameroff (2004) “Parental Discipline and externalizing behavior problems in early childhood:The roles of moral regulation and child gender” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(4):369–383.

Sege, Robert D. (2018, November 5). “AAP Policy Opposes Corporal Punishment, Draws on Recent Evidence.” Retrieved from

Smith, Anne B. (2006, March 27). “The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment.” Retrieved from The Ministry of Social Development,

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My purpose is to inspire and inform. You can read more by me on, and on the Good Men Project. I've had a lifetime of valuable experiences, and I want to share the lessons I've learned readily, or been forced to learn. I'm a psychotherapist, a hypnotherapist, a mother to my amazing son, Blake Scott, whom I write about often. I also write about race, equality, social justice, sex, government, and Mindfulness, not in that order.

Austin, TX

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