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Is Smacking Children Ever OK?

by

Rinjani Soengkoeng

Illustration of a family looking at a display in a museum of a father smacking a child

Many of us can remember that feeling of dread as we waited in our bedrooms for a smack or spanking that our parents had threatened. Every minute felt like an hour. 

Although the way we parent has changed a lot since then and smacking children isn’t as socially acceptable as it used to be, corporal punishment is still legal and commonly used in Australia. According to a recent publication by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 50 to 80 percent of parents still report using physical punishment as a form of discipline (AIFS, 2021).

The report also outlines the increasing amount of research showing that physical punishment is not only harmful in the short-term, but can also lead to lasting negative consequences. Despite its undeniable impacts, 47 percent of Australians still consider smacking to be an acceptable form of discipline (Wood, 2019). 

Researchers concluded that this may be because “Australian parents are often uncertain about what is reasonable and acceptable in physical punishment and where the line is for abuse.” (AIFS, 2021). It is possible that parents are unsure if smacking is as harmful as more extreme forms of physical punishment such as hitting and caning.

Thankfully, there are several alternatives to physical punishment that benefit both children and parents. Raising happy and well-balanced children contributes to a healthy society, so it’s important for parents to rethink their disciplinary practices.

Why smacking children isn’t the way to go

In a recent meta-analysis (a study that analyses pooled data from a number of other studies), researchers concluded that there was no association between smacking and improvements in child behaviour and that smacking was actually associated with worse behavioural and emotional outcomes (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016).

An important paper by Dobbs et al. (2006) asked children directly how they felt about smacking. Children reported that they often didn’t understand why they were being smacked or felt that the punishment was unjustified or hypocritical. The result was that smacking was unlikely to be effective as a form of discipline as the connection between the unwanted behaviour and the punishment wasn’t clear.

Even in the unlikely event that the connection between smacking and the negative behaviour is clear, parents who smack their children foster an extrinsic motivation for being good. Children learn that they should do things because they might be punished if they don’t rather than because it’s the right thing to do.


Further Reading

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Managing Difficult Behaviour

Smacking and social-emotional wellbeing

As well as being ineffective at improving children’s behaviour, smacking negatively impacts their social and emotional development in a number of ways.

Across multiple studies, Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor (2016) found immediate effects such as increased child aggression and antisocial behaviour, lower self-esteem and damage to the parent-child relationship. Importantly, smacking was also linked to poorer outcomes in adulthood, including mental health problems (found in five studies) and antisocial behaviour (two studies). 

Smacking can also have negative physiological consequences. A review of recent research on physical punishment found that children who have been disciplined in this way show differences in brain structure and functioning, suggesting that smacking negatively impacts brain development (Durrant & Ensom, 2017). 

Finally, research indicates that physical punishment can escalate into physical abuse quickly and unintentionally (Afifi et al., 2017; Poulsen, 2018) and that children who were physically punished were more likely to have also experienced abuse (Frechette et al., 2015). While parents might think they are providing appropriate discipline, they could be causing physical, mental and emotional damage to their children.

At best, smacking children has a limited impact on their challenging behaviours. At worst, it significantly harms their long-term wellbeing. 

Why does smacking have such a negative effect on children?

Firstly, adults’ and children’s perceptions of pain are different. While a parent may think they are only administering a light smack, the child is likely to have a harsher physical experience (Graziano et al., 1996; Saunders & Goddard, 2010).

Being hurt by a parent contributes to a second reason why smacking is detrimental to children: the emotional cost. When Dobbs et al. (2006) asked children how smacking made them feel, over half (of 80 total) reported negative emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion and fear. 

These feelings can change how children view their parents, themselves and relationships in general. Children’s sense of trust and safety at home is eroded and they can feel as though they are not loved by their parents or not worthy of love (Saunders & Goddard, 2010).

Harmful thought patterns like these can lead to worsening mental health as the child grows up and make it more likely for them to use substances to cope. In a study using data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions conducted by the US Census Bureau, it was found that adults who had been physically punished as children were more likely to have a mood, anxiety, substance abuse or personality disorder (Afifi et al., 2012).

Finally, smacking children teaches them that physical aggression is an appropriate response to being upset with someone (Dobbs et al., 2006). This encourages them to be violent and aggressive in their own interactions with their peers, which can prevent them from engaging socially and making meaningful friendships.

It also teaches them to accept such behaviour from others, which puts them at risk of being in a future abusive relationship. In another study using the same US Census data, Afifi et al. (2017) found that adults who experienced harsh physical punishment as a child (including slapping or hitting) were at increased risk of intimate partner violence. 


What are the alternatives to smacking?

According to Developmental and Educational Psychologist Dr Kimberly O’Brien, the most effective way to phase out smacking is to nurture positive parent-child relations through one-on-one time on a regular basis. Spending quality time promotes better communication about appropriate behaviour and reassures children that they are still loved when boundaries are enforced.

When spending time with children, parents can make sure they are encouraging positive behaviours by:

  • Being clear about what is expected in different situations and sticking to these rules
  • Modelling what is acceptable
  • Explaining why behaviours are positive or negative
  • Paying attention to and rewarding good behaviour.

When unreasonable behaviour does occur, parents can make sure they are in the right headspace before addressing these problems. Many parents smack their children when they’re experiencing high levels of negative emotion, which can be exacerbated by the stress of modern living (Regalado et al., 2004).

However, as adults, parents are responsible for managing their emotions and ensuring that they don’t negatively impact the parent-child relationship. Parents can regulate their own anger and stress by:

  • Taking deep breaths or counting to 10
  • Removing themselves from the situation to calm down first
  • Calling their partner or a friend for support
  • Having a glass of water
  • Investing in long-term strategies to minimise outbursts, such as daily yoga or regular exercise.

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Where can I go for help?

By seeking support and attempting to learn new methods to effectively manage children’s behaviour, parents are taking a critically important step. There are different types of support parents can use, depending on their personal needs and the needs of their child:

  • Friends and family: Spreading tasks and responsibilities more widely can help reduce parental stress and improve parent-child interactions.

  • Professional help: Child psychologists can offer more targeted learning interventions, such as behaviour management techniques and positive parenting classes.

Want to speak to a professional? We’re here for you.

The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions. If you’d like to discuss alternative ways of disciplining your child, you can:

Book a session with one of our experienced child psychologists.

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View article references

  • Afifi, T. O., Mota, N., Sareen, J., & MacMillan, H. L. (2017). The relationships between harsh physical punishment and child maltreatment in childhood and intimate partner violence in adulthood. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1-10. Springer Nature. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4359-8
  • Afifi, T. O., Mota, N. P., Dasiewicz, P., MacMillan, H. L., & Sareen, J. (2012). Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US Sample. Pediatrics, 130(2), 184-192. PubMed.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). What’s the Best Way to Discipline My Child? HealthyChildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Disciplining-Your-Child.aspx
  • Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2021). Physical punishment legislation. Child Family Community Australia. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/physical-punishment-legislation
  • Dobbs, T. A., Smith, A. B., & Taylor, N. J. (2006). “No, We Don’t Get a Say, Children Just Suffer the Consequences”: Children Talk about Family Discipline. International Journal of Children’s Rights, 14(2), 137-156. Brill Online Journals.
  • Durrant, J. E., & Ensom, R. (2017). Twenty-five years of physical punishment research: What have we learned? Journal of the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28(1), 20-24.
  • Frechette, S., Zoratti, M., & Romano, E. (2015). What Is the Link Between Corporal Punishment and Child Physical Abuse? Journal of Family Violence, 30(2), 135-148. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-014-9663-9
  • Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(4), 453–469. Ovid.
  • Graziano, A. M., Hamblen, J. L., & Plante, W. A. (1996). Subabusive violence in child rearing in middle-class American families. Pediatrics, 98(4), 845-850. Gale Academic OneFile.
  • Poulsen, A. (2018). The Role of Corporal Punishment of Children in the Perpetuation of Intimate Partner Violence in Australia. Children Australia, 43(1). http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/10.1017/cha.2018.6
  • Regalado, M., Sareen, H., Inkelas, M., Wissow, L. S., & Halfon, N. (2004). Parents' discipline of young children: results from the National Survey of Early Childhood Health. Pediatrics, 113(6), 1952-1958. Gale Academic OneFile.
  • Saunders, B. J., & Goddard, C. (2010). The Effects of Physical Punishment. In Physical Punishment in Childhood: The Rights of the Child (pp. 141-163). John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 10.1002/9780470684405
  • Wood, P. (2019, November 19). Is it OK to smack your child? Australians are divided, but the practice is dying out. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-19/is-it-ok-to-smack-your-child-australians-are-divided/11646028

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