What the Spanking and Mental Illness Study Really Said

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Spanking IllnessIn July of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a study that revealed a positive link between harsh physical punishment and the prevalence of mental illness. News sites took this article as a cue to publish a number of headlines with the simplified title, “Study shows spanking causes mental illness,” and variations on the same. The problem with this assertion is that it ignores the actual intent and thrust of the article in favor of a sensationalized title.

The title of the AAP study was, in full, “Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US Sample.” According to the AAP, the study was intended to investigate “the possible link between harsh physical punishment…” and “…Axis I and II mental disorders.” Further, the study was tailored to examine this link while ruling out mistreatment such as physical, sexual, or mental abuse. For the purposes of this study, harsh punishment was qualified as that including pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting.

The result of the study was that there is a statistically significant relationship between harsh physical punishment and Axis I and II mental disorders. Between 2% and 5% of Axis I disorders, and 4% to 7% of Axis II disorders showed a positive link with harsh physical punishments. Axis I disorders include anxiety disorders, eating disorders, dissociative disorders and psychotic disorders. Axis II disorders are personality disorders, the most well-known of which is Bipolar Personality Disorder.

The conclusion went on to say that harsh physical punishment, in the absence of outright abuse, is “associated” with an increased prevalence of Axis I and II disorders.

Spanking can easily be classified under the distinctions mentioned in the restrictions of physical treatment laid out for the study. Hitting and slapping can both be classified as spanking; a slap on the hand or the arm for example, are different than a slap across the face. By extension, it is indeed logical to make the claim that spanking can lead to mental illness. However, the facts of the matter are more complex than the surface facts of the study’s conclusion and results.

To expand on the matter, pushing, grabbing, and shoving are also included in the classification of harsh physical punishment. While the study makes the point of differentiating between these punishments and abuse, it is hard to consider a circumstance in which these are appropriate responses to misbehavior in a child. Further, consider what the study means by harsh when it defines harsh physical punishments. It is not a matter of how hard the punishment is, but how frequently it is performed.

The matter is complicated, and not something that can be summed up in a catchy newspaper title. Spanking, along with other physical punishments, can indeed cause mental illness even when not falling into classic models of abusive behavior. However, the matter is not as simple as “spanking causes mental illness,” but rather “too much spanking over time causes mental illness.” An instance or two of spanking a child for misbehavior will not likely cause a mental illness. Multiple spankings over a long period of time, on the other hand, should be avoided because they are indeed linked to the development of these conditions.

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