Spanking has similar effects on kids as adverse childhood experiences

February 11, 2021
Written By:
Jared Wadley

Stock image of a mother disciplining her child

Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences including abuse, neglect and family dysfunction increase the risk on kids for future trauma in their lives.

Julie Ma

Julie Ma

A new University of Michigan study adds spanking to the list.

The study provides evidence that spanking and adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs—which include measures of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, intimate partner violence, parental mental health problems, parental substance use, parental incarceration and parental death—have statistically indistinguishable effects on externalizing behavior problems in early childhood.

In the study, appearing in the Journal of Pediatrics, U-M researchers analyzed the responses from 2,380 families in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Mothers reported outcomes of externalizing and internalizing child behavior problems at age 5; and the main predictors, ACEs, and spanking, at age 3.

ACEs and spanking at 3 years were unique risk factors for increased externalizing problems at 5 years, the study shows. Results support calls to consider physical punishment as a form of ACE.

“This suggests that the detrimental effects of spanking and ACEs on children are likely to be similar,” said Julie Ma, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of social work at U-M-Flint.

For decades, parents have debated disciplinary methods for children who misbehave. Those who support spanking believe their children won’t suffer lasting negative effects. Spanking opponents, including pediatric and psychology organizations, say nonviolent discipline is the better practice based on many studies that have shown that spanking is likely to worsen children’s behavior problems.

The study’s co-authors are Shawna Lee, associate professor of social work at U-M-Ann Arbor and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research, and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, professor of social work at U-M-Ann Arbor.


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