Risk of Physical Abuse

Does Spanking Lead a Parent to Use Physical Abuse?

Does the decision to use disciplinary spanking with a young child increase a parent’s risk of physically abusing the child?  There is compelling evidence against such a link.

  • Surveys indicate that as many as 94% of parents of preschoolers use spanking,34, [i] yet the incidence of physical child abuse in the America is less than 1%.[ii]  Statistically, the two practices are far apart.  Moreover, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and the National Incidence Studies have reported a steady increase in physical child abuse that over the past two decades, while approval for parental spanking has steadily declined.[iii]
  • More than 70% of primary care pediatricians who work every day with families reject the idea that spanking sets the stage for parents to engage in forms of physical abuse.[iv]
  • Socolar & Stein found that most parents who spank do not spank on impulse, but purposefully spank their children with a belief in its effectiveness.[v]  No significant correlation between the frequency of spanking and the anger reported by mothers was found.  Actually, the mothers who reported being angry were not the same parents who spanked.
  • Teaching parents appropriate spanking may actually reduce child abuse.[vi]  Spanking bans, on the other hand, seem to primarily reduce the mild type of spanking that may actually stop the  escalating frustration of the parent that puts the child at risk for physical child abuse.[vii]  Parents who are ill-equipped to control their child’s behavior, or who take a more permissive approach (refusing to use spanking), may be more prone to anger47 and explosive attacks on their child.10
  • Parental child abuse is an interactive process involving a mix of parental competence, parental and child temperaments, and situational demands.[viii]  Abusive parents are more angry, depressed and impulsive, and emphasize punishment as the predominant means of discipline.  Abused children are more aggressive and less compliant than children from nonabusive families.  There is less interaction between family members in abusive families and abusive mothers display more negative than positive behavior.  The etiology of abusive parenting is multifactorial with emphasis on the personalities involved and has not been simply linked to a parent’s method of discipline.
  • Trickett & Kuczynski[ix] found in their clinical study of abusive and nonabusive families that abusive parents used punishment as the predominant type of discipline, regardless of the type of child misbehavior.  They reported being angry and disgusted after disciplinary interventions.  Nonabusive parents disciplined their children with a balanced combination of reasoning and punishment (including some spanking), and reported more satisfaction with their efforts.
  • Wissow and Roter in a reply to Trumbull, et al.’s Letter to Editor in Pediatrics acknowledge that a definitive link between spanking and child abuse has yet to be established.[x]
  • Finally, there is no evidence that the Swedish experiment to reduce child abuse by banning spanking in 1979 has resulted in any reduction in physical child abuse.  One year after the spanking ban, the rate of physical child abuse in Sweden was 49 % higher than that of the United States.[xi], 42  The percentage of Swedish parents who reported beating up their child during the year after the spanking ban was 3.0%, compare to American rates of 1.3% in 1975 and 0.6% in 1985.[xii] According to a 1995 report from the governmental agency Statistics Sweden, the reports of child abuse by family members had increased four fold since 1981 and teen violence was up six fold.[xiii]

There is no evidence that disciplinary spanking and violent physical child abuse are on the same continuum.  There is evidence that the planned and balanced use of spanking can improve child behavior and thereby reduce moments of parental exasperation.  Parents who abuse their children have pathological personality characteristics and don’t fit the scenario of a loving parent whose spanking “got out of hand.”  With parenting, it is the “user” and how the disciplinary measure is used that determines its outcome.

[i]  Straus M. Discipline and deviance: physical punishment of children and violence and other crime in adulthood. Social Problems. 1991; 38:133-152

[ii]  Gaudiosi JA. Child Maltreatment 2005. US Department of Health and Human Sources.  Retrieved on November 5, 2007 at

[iii]  National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. Memorandum. May 1995;2(5).

[iv]  White K. Where pediatricians stand on spanking. Pediatric Management. September 1993: 11-15.

[v]  Socolar R, Stein R. Spanking infants and toddlers: maternal belief and practice. Pediatrics. 1995;95:105-111

[vi]  Larzelere RE. Should the use of corporal punishment by parents be considered child abuse? in Mason M & Gambrill E (eds). Debating Children’s Lives. 1994; pp 204-209. California: SAGE Publications

[vii]  Larzelere RE, & Johnson B. Evaluation of the effects of Sweden’s spanking ban on physical child abuse rates: A literature review. Psychological Reports. 1999. 85, 381-392.

[viii]  Wolfe D. Child-abusive parents: an empirical review and analysis. Psychol. Bulletin. 1985;97(3):462-482.

[ix]  Trickett K., Kuczynski L. Children’s misbehavior and parental discipline strategies in abusive and nonabusive families. Developmental Psychology. 1986; 22(1): 115-123.

[x]  Wissow LS & Roter D. In reply to: Corporal punishment letter. Pediatrics. 1995;96(4):794-795.

[xi]  Gelles RJ & Edfeldt AW. Violence toward children in the United States and Sweden. Child Abuse and Neglect. 1986;10:501-510.

[xii]  Haeuser AA. Reducing violence towards U.S. children: Transferring positive innovations from Sweden: Unpublished manuscript. 1988. (Available from author, School of Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 53201).

[xiii]  Statistics Sweden. K R Info. May 1995; pp 1-6. Stockholm

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