This Is How Spanking Kids Affects Their Mental Health As Adults

Some aspects of parenting never change, but attitudes about the best way to discipline children do. In 1986, 84 percent of parents approved of spanking misbehaving children, according to FiveThirtyEight. In 2012, that number had dropped to 70 percent. It seems that many moms and dads no longer think spanking is a viable method for discipline, but why is spanking starting to fall out of favor?


It could be thanks to recent research, such as this analysis of 50 years of data by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan. Their findings, which were published in the Journal of Family Psychology, highlighted the detrimental impact that physical punishment can have on a child including anti-social behavior and mental health problems.

In fact, a recent study from the University of Michigan found that children who experienced spanking have mental health problems in adulthood. As Science Daily explains, the study showed that spanking can lead to devastating emotional issues later in life, including:

  • depression
  • suicide ideation/suicide attempts
  • binge drinking/alcoholism
  • Illegal drug use

“Placing spanking in a similar category to physical/emotional abuse experiences would increase our understanding of these adult mental health problems,” Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor of social work at University of Michigan, explained to Science Daily.

The University of Michigan study is the most recent, but it is far from unique in its findings. Many other studies have found that spanking can produce both short-term and long-term negative effects, including low self-esteem, worsening behavior problems, fractured parent-child bonds, and also cognitive impairment.

Research from the University of New Hampshire even shows that spanking children affects their intelligence. A study presented in 2009 showed that kids who had parents that spanked had lower IQs four years later when compared to kids who were not spanked.

Experts theorize that this is because stress levels impact a child’s ability to learn and retain information, and a child who is spanked has higher stress and anxiety levels as they fear when they might be harmed next.

“I can just about count on one hand the studies that have found anything positive about physical punishment and hundreds that have been negative,” says Elizabeth T. Gershof, human development expert, researcher and author of the University of Texas at Austin meta-analysis mentioned above.

Indeed, in Gershof’s meta-analysis of over 75 published studies, she found that spanking is linked to 13 out of 17 negative outcomes, including increased aggression, reduced self-worth, poorer emotional health and lower intelligence.


The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages parents from spanking, as they say it is ineffective and teaches aggressive behavior. Additionally, 52 countries worldwide have banned spanking, and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defined it as “legalized violence against children.”

This year, France became the latest country to make spanking illegal. Of the new law, Dr. Gilles Lazimi, who leads the Foundation for Childhood in France, told the UK’s Telegraph:

“This law is a very strong symbolic act to make parents understand just how all violence can be harmful for the child. Above all, it removes the notion of a threshold: There is no small or big violence. There is violence, full stop.”

There are a number of discipline methods which can instill better behavior without leading to long-term problems down the road. Web sites such as Positive Parenting and Parenting Beyond Punishment are good places to start. You can also download a free copy of Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting on the website for Save The Children.