MONDAY, Feb. 6, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Adding more fuel to the controversial topic of children and spanking, two Canadian child development experts have published a new analysis that warns that physical punishment poses serious risks to a child's long-term development.
In the paper, published online Feb. 6 in CMAJ, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the authors analyzed two decades of research and concluded that "virtually without exception, these studies found that physical punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression against parents, siblings, peers and spouses."
While studies show that spanking has declined in the United States since the 1970s, many parents still believe it's an acceptable form of punishment. A 2010 University of North Carolina study revealed that nearly 80 percent of preschool children in the United States are spanked.
"Our paper is a prompt to medical professionals to apply the compelling findings of research on physical punishment in their guidance of parents," said co-author Joan Durrant, a child clinical psychologist and professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
In addition to the substantial evidence that children who are spanked are more aggressive, the authors note that physical punishment is linked to various mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. What's more, recent neuroimaging studies have shown that physical punishment may alter parts of the brain that are linked to performance on IQ tests and increase vulnerability to drug or alcohol dependence, they write.
Many parents are skeptical of published findings on spanking, and question whether the aggressive behavior prompts the spanking, rather than the other way around. But the paper's co-author says researchers have been able to tease this relationship apart.
"It is the case that children who are more aggressive do tend to get hit more, but the punishment does not reduce those children's aggression; rather, it exacerbates it," said Ron Ensom, who worked as a social worker at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, in Ottawa, when the paper was written.
"When parents of aggressive children are instructed in how to reduce their use of spanking, and they do indeed reduce it, the level of their children's aggression declines," Ensom said. "And when children who all have the same level of aggression when the study begins are followed over a period of years, those who are spanked tend to get more aggressive over time, while those who are not spanked tend to get less aggressive."
The authors urged physicians to help parents learn nonviolent, effective approaches to discipline, but one child psychologist in the United States said the paper fell short in providing examples of such approaches.
"They did a nice job of summarizing all of the research, and it's always good to reinforce the message, especially to newer physicians," said Mary Alvord, a child clinical psychologist in private practice in Rockville and Silver Spring, Md. "I just wish they had taken the next step and given the doctors more tools to show parents what to do, rather than focusing so much on what they shouldn't do."
"Parents often feel helpless in these situations, and they want their child to get the message that what they did is wrong," Alvord said. "So I don't get preachy with parents, but I try to explain that there are so many more effective things that parents can do, like timeouts."
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests effective ways to discipline children.