By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Children who are spanked, slapped, shoved or otherwise physically punished may be more prone to antisocial behavior as adults, a U.S. study suggests.

Four in five children in the U.S. have been spanked at least once by the time they reach kindergarten, researchers note in JAMA Network Open. While spanking and other forms of harsh physical punishment have long been linked to mental health problems in kids, less is known about how these childhood experiences influence adult behavior.

For the current study, researchers examined survey data from 36,309 adults who were 47 years old, on average. Participants were asked about childhood punishments like pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping and hitting as well as any maltreatment like sexual violence and emotional or physical abuse or neglect.

Overall, 18 percent of participants had experienced some type of harsh physical punishment growing up, and 48 percent endured some form of maltreatment.

Spanking on its own, and abuse on its own, were both associated with a higher risk of antisocial behavior in adulthood, the analysis found. And kids who experienced both harsh physical punishment and some form of abuse or neglect were even more likely to develop antisocial behaviors as adults than children who only encountered only one type of mistreatment.

Combined, these childhood experiences might explain about 46 percent of antisocial behavior among men and about 47 percent of antisocial behavior among women, the study concludes.

“Decades of data have indicated that spanking and harsh physical punishment increases the likelihood of many poor health, developmental and social outcomes for children and, importantly, no studies have ever shown that spanking is beneficial to the child,” said study leader Tracie Afifi of the University of Manitoba in Canada.

“We need to stop thinking of parenting in terms of punishments and move towards positive parenting approaches to guide children,” Afifi said by email. “This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for problematic, unsafe or dangerous child behavior, but rather that we guide and teach children in safe and nurturing environments using non-physical discipline.”

The study focused on a broad range of antisocial behaviors including breaking the law, lying, impulsivity, aggression, recklessness, an inability to hold down a job or pay bills, and a lack of remorse for having mistreated, hurt or stolen from another person.

While spanking may not always lead to lasting mental health problems or antisocial behavior in adulthood, there’s no compelling reason for parents to use harsh physical punishment when there are less harmful and more effective ways to discipline kids, said Andrew Riley, a psychologist at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and Oregon Health & Science University in Portland who wasn’t involved in the study.

Children who experience physical punishment may have a harder time controlling violent impulses and may learn that violence is the only way to solve conflicts, Riley said by email.

“Children learn by example, and parents are their most important models,” Riley added. “Learning it’s okay to hurt the ones you love – or that they will hurt you – is not a lesson we want taught to our children.”

Another problem is that parents don’t always realize how hard they are striking children when they choose spanking or other forms of physical punishment, said Dr. Frank Elgar, a psychiatry researcher at McGill University in Montreal, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Parents have poor control over the amount of force used and tend to use more force than was intended,” Elgar said by email. “The slap usually comes out of frustration and anger, not the desire to teach, and because it’s ineffective in correcting a child’s behavior, the violence tends to escalate and become used indiscriminately.”

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online January 25, 2019.