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Physical Punishment of NZ Children Common

Physical Punishment of NZ Children ‘Common, Prolonged and Gender-Specific’

Otago research also indicates that many young people find non-physical methods worse

Four out of five New Zealand children have been physically punished, with one in two still hit in adolescence, according to a new University of Otago study examining experiences of physical punishment and discipline in the home in the 1970s and 80s.

The findings, based on data obtained from the nearly 1,000 members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, appear in the latest issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal.

The results show that the large majority of study members interviewed (80%) received physical punishment in childhood. For over a quarter of all interviewees (29%), smacking was the most severe physical punishment; 45% reported being hit with an object; and 6% described experiences of extreme physical punishment such as being beaten up or knocked unconscious.

“Our results suggest that parental use of corporal punishment is very much the norm for New Zealand children”, says Dr Jane Millichamp, lead author of the paper, which she co-authored with Ms Judy Martin and Prof John Langley at the University’s Dunedin School of Medicine.

The study members were 26 years old when interviewed about aspects of family violence and were reporting about events that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. However, recent studies from the United Kingdom and United States indicate similar punishment rates for today’s children, says Dr Millichamp.

“Not only did we find that physical punishment was extremely prevalent, it was also administered over a long time period in many cases. Nearly half of the sample (47%) confirmed that they were still being physically punished in adolescence.”

“We noted some interesting gender differences - Girls were more likely to receive lower-level physical punishment such as being smacked with an open hand, whereas boys were more likely to be hit with an object such as a belt,” she says.

However, the authors found that when it came to the most extreme physical punishment, there was no difference in male-to-female ratios and boys and girls were exposed to this form of violence in similar numbers.

Six percent of study members reported being subjected to extreme physical punishment, which the researchers defined as any repeated physical act by a parent that resulted in lasting bruises or injury.

Examples of physical punishment falling into the extreme category were: hitting with a range of objects such as vacuum cleaner hoses, whips and metal pipes; punching with closed fist; repeated kicking; and beating.

“Our study revealed some unique characteristics related to extreme physical punishment when compared to milder forms,” says Dr Millichamp.

“One finding that stands out from the rest is that extreme acts of punishment are not controlled or clearly thought out beforehand. In many cases, extreme punishment presents in the form of ‘blind rage’ meted out to girls and boys indiscriminately, younger and older children, and, irrespective of the child’s characteristics or actions preceding it.”

Additional findings indicated that extreme physical punishment was more frequently: 1) directed at the child’s head and torso, as opposed to the limbs or bottom; 2) associated with lasting and/or serious injury (eg, lacerations, broken bones, loss of consciousness); and 3) associated with strong signs of emotional distress in the study members reporting it.

“When we examined the reasons for administering punishment, it was apparent that often, the punishment did not fit the ‘crime’,” she says.

“Some children were punished very violently for the smallest of things, such as, wearing the wrong clothes, talking while the TV was on, or just being in the same room as an angry parent.”

The study also identifies a number of parental characteristics associated with the use of extreme physical punishment.

These include: gender, with fathers and stepfathers significantly more likely to use extreme punishment than mothers; and psychological problems on the parents’ part such as alcohol abuse and perpetual bad temper, as reported by study members.

Some surprising results were reported in relation to the study members’ views of the worst punishment ever received, she says.

“The category of punishment most frequently cited as worst was non-physical punishment such as grounding and loss of privileges. Many study members stated that even though they were smacked or hit with an object, they viewed the loss of privileges as far more negative.

“The fact that grounding and privilege loss were so aversive and memorable to the study members, suggests that these methods may be the punishment of choice for parents with adolescents. The advantage of these non-physical methods is that they don’t involve the use of physical force, with all the associated risks of escalation, retaliation, modelling of aggression, and injury,” she says.

The authors are currently undertaking further research on the topic of child punishment.

“We are in the process of completing a second paper which will examine the association between the types of punishment received in childhood such as, smacking and more severe physical punishment, and how children do later in life.”

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