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Physical Punishment A Health Risk For Children

Wednesday 2 June 2004

Physical punishment a health risk for children

Outcomes include poorer academic achievement and adjustment to school

Physical punishment of children is associated with the development of antisocial behaviour in children, as well as poorer academic achievement and adjustment to school, according to a review of research by Otago University's Children's Issues Centre. The review concludes physical punishment is a health risk for children.

The Children's Issues Centre surveyed more than 300 internationally published peer-reviewed research articles in its investigation, which was commissioned by the Office of the Children's Commissioner (see background sheet for more detail).

Lead researcher Professor Anne Smith says the research found physical punishment has only limited success in making children compliant. Professor Smith says the long-term effects of physical punishment were all negative.

"The literature is quite consistent in supporting the conclusion that there is an association between the use of parental corporal punishment and the development of antisocial behaviour in children."

Effects include:

- Aggression, disruptive, delinquent and antisocial behaviour, being the victim of violent offending, violent offending, and low peer status.

- Poorer academic achievement including lower IQ, poorer performance on standardized achievement tests, poorer adjustment to school, more ADHD-like symptoms, and poorer self-esteem.

- Diminished quality of parent-child relationships, with children likely to be less securely attached to parents and being more likely to feel that their parents do not love them, and to feel fearful or hostile towards parents.

- Increased depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and psychiatric disorders.

- Poorer conscience development and less internal control by children over their own behaviour.

In contrast the research suggests six principles of effective discipline:-

- Parental warmth and involvement and attentive, caring and affectionate relationships.

- Clear communication and messages to children, which are age-appropriate, about why their behaviour is acceptable or not.

- Use of reasoning, explanation, setting up logical consequences and limit setting.

- Providing fair, reasonable and clearly defined rules, boundaries and expectations for behaviour.

- Consistently following behaviours with appropriate consequences ­ rewards or mild non-physical punishments such as time-out ­ and having a ratio of about eight or nine positive responses to children's behaviour, to one negative response.

- Structuring the situation to avoid encouraging inappropriate behaviour, such as avoiding the provision of negative models and changing the physical environment.

Children's Commissioner Dr Cindy Kiro says the research has found that an authoritative and firm parenting style, accompanied by warmth, responsiveness, involvement and reasoning is associated with children's healthy social adjustment.

"This is important research because it gives parents evidence-based information about the effects of physical punishment, as well as practical alternatives."

Dr Kiro points out a recent UNICEF report shows New Zealand had the third highest rate of deaths from child maltreatment in the OECD.

The full research findings will be released at a seminar on the use of physical punishment organised by the Children's Issues Centre, to be held in Wellington on 18-19 June 2004.

Important background information

The review has been written up as a detailed report but a shorter version is being released to the public in June. The review and short report were commissioned by the Office of the Children's Commissioner and investigate a range of issues ­ including the effect of physical punishment on children, why parents physically punish children, effective family disciplinary practices and the legal framework for family discipline.

Did the researchers find that it is safe to use physical punishment in any circumstances?

Lead researcher Professor Anne Smith says one of the problems highlighted by the review is the lack of agreement over when physical punishment steps over the line and becomes abuse. Professor Smith points out in cases of physical abuse, about two thirds of the time it is preceded by ordinary use of physical punishment for discipline. The danger of physical punishment is that it can easily escalate into physical abuse.


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