Hitting a child can cause a lifetime of hurt

It is often parents' inability to control their own emotions that results in children being hit

Parenting can put huge stress on people who struggle to manage their emotions. AFP
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There is a hidden camera TV show that roams the middle east capturing everyday people's reactions to staged scenarios. The show is called Al Sadma (the shock). A recent airing featured a father apparently maltreating his young son in public. This emotionally provocative episode reignited the debate about physical punishment and whether smacking a child is ever OK. The Al Sadma viewers, like audiences in general, were split, with voices on both sides of the physical punishment divide.

Physical punishment advocates worldwide tend to say things like: "my parents hit me; it never did me any harm." Perhaps the harm is the belief that it's OK to hit children. However, most of those who think hitting is OK tend to qualify their stance, advocating a light-handed approach with only minimal force. But how hard is too hard, and do we need to re-calibrate based on the child's age and body mass? Where exactly do we draw the line?

There is no universally agreed consensus about the exact point physical punishment becomes physical abuse. Within some legal frameworks, if the discipline leaves welts, bruises or contusions, it is considered abuse. Even with such a definition, we still need to ask what are the effects of beatings that do not leave marks on a child's developing mind.

A study published last year in The Journal of Pediatrics found that physical punishment (spanking/smacking) had similar associations to childhood emotional problems as other well-established risk factors, including physical abuse and neglect, parental incarceration and exposure to intimate partner violence.

Good parenting is as susceptible to an adult's emotions as it is a child's. AP

The study in question involved looking at data for 2380 families over four years. The analysis was part of a larger project known as the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study led by Princeton and Columbia Universities in the US. The study's authors concluded that the physical punishment of young children is likely to harm physical and mental health.

Of course, when physical punishment crosses the blurred line into physical abuse, it can have a devastating impact on health. Childhood physical abuse, however, is rarely an isolated event. It often occurs alongside other adversities such as emotional abuse, neglect, parental substance misuse and more. Therefore, any study wanting to understand the impact of physical abuse on mental health also needs to consider these other adversities.

Such a study was published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect in 2007. This study involved over 2000 adults. Even after considering all other early-life adversities, demographics and the family environment, childhood physical abuse remained a strong predictor of ill-health across various physical and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, heart and liver disease and asthma.

The research suggests that childhood physical punishment and physical abuse are likely to negatively impact later-life health. So why do we continue to hit children? The answer often lies in our inability to adequately manage our emotions as parents.

One of the best predictors of whether physical punishment is administered or not is parental mood. The decision to smack or not smack can be totally independent of the child's actual behaviours. Parents who shrug off a behavioural misdemeanour on a happy day will come down hard on the same behaviours when they are in a bad mood. Parents learning to better manage their emotions is far kinder and more effective than subjecting children to inconsistent, mood-dependent physical punishment.

Childhood trauma is a risk factor for developing mental health problems later in life. EPA

Similarly, children are often a safe target for adults to redirect and vent their emotions upon: "You're just like your father." Psychologists call this trick-of-mind displacement. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we direct our anger towards a convenient rather than a deserving target; we let our hostility rain down on the vulnerable rather than the powerful.

Parenting can be incredibly rewarding. Unfortunately, it can also be super stressful, an unending emotional roller coaster. Hitting or generally maltreating a child is often (not always) an excellent example of maladaptive emotional reactivity – letting our emotions get the better of us. Managing stress and emotional reactivity is a vital part of parenting. Mindfulness and other stress management courses have become common in the workplace.

We need to do more to offer such courses to the parents of young children and especially to would-be and soon-to-be parents. Such a sustained initiative will, eventually, confine questions about whether it's OK to hit children to the dustbin of history where they belong.

Published: May 17, 2022, 4:00 AM