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Spanking may worsen a child’s aggression

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By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / February 13, 2012
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As the mother of two sons, I’ve been tempted on more than one occasion to break up one of their physical fights with a smack on their bottoms. I’ve been able to hold myself back, and that’s likely a good thing since the latest review of research on spanking published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests that it’s counter-productive and actually leads kids to hit, kick, or bite even more.

It turns out, those parental slaps increase the risk of aggressive behavior both in childhood and adulthood.

“The findings have been very consistent over the past 20 years,’’ said study author Joan Durrant, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba. “Physical punishment predicts only negative long-term outcomes.’’

Besides increased aggression, spanking increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and even cheating and criminal behaviors when the child becomes an adult. It also weakens the parent-child bond so “parents have less influence in setting an example of morally correct behavior,’’ said Murray Straus, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who has been studying spanking for more than 20 years.

Researchers have improved their methods of studying spanking by assessing children through the years, rather than asking adults to remember how often they were spanked - which can yield unreliable recollections.

“If a child ranks in the top fifth among peers for misbehaviors, does he move up or down in this ranking as he gets older and does this correlate with how often he was spanked?’’ said Straus. One of his landmark studies found that children who were spanked an average of twice a week to reduce physical aggression were more likely to have greater aggression two years later compared with those who weren’t spanked. Their risk increased along with the frequency of spanking.

A study published this month by other researchers found that even in cultures where spanking is considered acceptable, kids who are spanked have the same increased risk of becoming more aggressive.

“Spanking is a traumatic experience that can cause small losses in the brain’s gray matter,’’ explained Straus, “causing behavioral changes.’’ His research also found that spanking was linked to a lowering of IQ levels in children who were frequently spanked.

“Of course, some kids aren’t harmed at all by spanking, just like some heavy smokers suffer no harm from cigarettes,’’ Straus said. “But they’re the lucky ones as opposed to the unlucky ones who suffer harmful side effects.’’

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended against physical punishment, saying it’s of “limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.’’

Durrant pointed out that other forms of punishment - such as belittling, humiliating, or embarrassing a child - can be just as harmful in terms of damaging a child’s psyche. But, she added, “certainly children need discipline and guidance, clear expectations, and a good understanding of the impact of their behavior.’’

First and foremost, she said, parents should act as positive role models, modeling behavior that they want their kids to mimic.

Durrant recommends these five steps for parents to take when kids are misbehaving:

1. Consider your long-term goals. What sort of values are you trying to instill in your child? What behaviors do you want to model?

2. Remember that children need to feel your respect, love, and understanding. They also need to feel safe and secure.

3. Think about what your child needs to understand for the situation to be resolved. What can you do to help your child reach short- and long-term goals?

4. Consider how your child thinks and feels at this stage of development. Put yourself in your 2-year-old’s shoes. After a busy day with no nap, would you have trouble staying quiet through a cousin’s recital?

5. Respond in a way that shows respect for your child. Acknowledge what he or she is feeling and provide useful solutions to address the situation. Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com.

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