Spanking is Associated With Mental Illness

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Canadian researchers, publishing today in the journal Pediatrics, find that physical punishment such as spanking is associated with an increased risk of mental disorders. Acknowledging that the study could not prove a causal link, study author Tracie Afifi asserted that the statistical relationship is clear. Though legal in the U.S. and Canada, spanking has been outlawed in more than 30 countries.

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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].

7 COMMENTS

  1. “Physical punishment was defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping and hitting…”

    Yet the title is Spanking? Pushing, grabbing, shoving and slapping are not spanking. I’m not sure “hitting” is spanking. I’d need to see a more specific definition.

    I guess they wanted a headline to generate interest. We’re about two years away from ‘World Spank Out Day’

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    • I tried a few variations of the headline. “Physical Punishment” seemed like it could be about torture of adults. “Spanking” was shorthand for physical punishment of children, and I figured it was an excusable one since the summary spells it out a little more as “physical punushment” immediately below. I tried a version with the whole list, but it just didn’t feel right to put it in peoples’ faces on the front page. I figured people who were interested would get the whole list as soon as they clicked on the link.
      It’s interesting trying to get everything into a few words.

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    • I agree – there is a vast difference between spanking and “pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping and hitting” – I was spanked (in a legitimate fashion) but also “illegitimately” – ambushed from behind doors when I was observed misbehaving outdoors; also slapped, and even kicked – but I have to say that virtually none of that had the impact on me that the emotional abuse did.

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  2. “Although it is well established that physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and other severe forms of maltreatment in childhood are associated with mental illness, this is one of the first studies to show a link between non-abusive physical punishment and several different types of mental disorders, says epidemiologist Tracie Afifi, lead author of the study in today’s Pediatrics.” (Found on HuffPost)
    I think the usual correlation-causation question has to be asked. It may be that it’s not the punishment itself, but the environment in which that is believed to be the best, or at least an expedient, way to do things that really causes to problems down the road. I might even argue that, if those conditions exist; an authoritarian, harsh, and inherently unsafe environment, it doesn’t matter whether or not the physical punishment occurs, and the small percent of problems attributable to it are just the tip of the iceberg. It can even be argued, and I believe there is research to support this, that the presence of physical punishment can serve as a trigger for a person to objectively understand that they need to separate from a problematic situation, where otherwise people developing under these kind of harsh conditions are challenged to develop internalized self-awareness and self-determination despite the environment rather than as a result of it. Those who don’t manage this quite difficult task are left more challenged than they might have had they been able to objectively identify conditions that justify or impel them to develop autonomy.

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