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Smacking children may have lasting impact, research suggests

Posted at Jan 13, 2021

Smacking children and harsh parenting could have a long-lasting impact on a child’s mental health and behaviour, research suggests.

The use of smacking has generated much debate, with Scotland last year the first nation in the UK to ban the practice. The removal of “justifiable assault” from the law means children now have the same protection from violence as adults.

Now experts say research highlights the need for the other nations to ban the practice, too.

“Scotland has already made that change and Wales is coming, and it would just be great if England could follow suit as well,” said Dr Rebecca Lacey, co-author of the research from University College London. “There are more, softer ways of dealing with problem behaviours,” she added.

Writing in the journal Child, Abuse and Neglect, Lacey and colleagues report how they analysed data from just under 9,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01 who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study.

The team looked at the frequency of eight “adverse events” reported by parents by the time their child was three years old. These included whether the parents smacked their child, had drug or alcohol problems, frequently used harsh parenting behaviours such as shouting at their children or sending them to a “naughty chair”, and whether the parents were separated.

The researchers also looked at questionnaires completed by the parents when their child was aged three, five, seven, 11 and 14, looking into issues ranging from whether the child had friends to whether they worried a lot, had tantrums, or helped others.

“They are indicators of child behaviour and mental health,” said Lacey.

The team found that while about a third of the children had experienced none of the eight types of adverse events by the time they were three, a third had experienced one type, and about a sixth had experienced three or more types. Parental depression, harsh parenting and physical punishment were the most commonly reported of the adverse events.

Taking into account factors such whether the children were living in poverty, the team found the adverse events studied were associated with both behavioural and mental health problems.

“The more adversities a child has experienced by the age of three, the worse their mental health is by that point – but those differences persist over time, so right across early life at least to age 14,” said Lacey.

Lacey added that smacking and harsh parenting were most strongly associated with so-called “externalising problems”, such as fighting with other children, lying or cheating and being hyperactive.

The study has limitations, including that it does not account for the impact of other adverse experiences that children may be experiencing, and cannot prove cause and effect. In addition, the majority of the data was gathered from parents, meaning some adverse events may have been under-reported.

However, Lacey noted underreporting would mean that the associations found in the study were likely to be even stronger than the research suggests.

Dr Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas and an expert on the impact of smacking on children, who was not involved in the work, welcomed the findings .

“Although this data was collected well before smacking bans were passed in Scotland and Wales, the study’s finding that smacking predicts consistently worse child behaviour over time supports the recent smacking bans”, she said.

Anna Edmundson, the NSPCC’s head of policy, agreed. She said:

“The findings from this research, reinforcing existing evidence that physical punishment can also have long-lasting effects, highlights why England must join Scotland and Wales in ensuring physical assault of children is never reasonable nor justifiable,” she said.