Children who get spanked more likely to be violent toward future dating partners

Jan 25, 2018, 13:30 PM by Christopher Smith Gonzalez
Dr. Jeff Temple

A parent who spanks a child may be teaching them the wrong lesson.  

A new study by UTMB researchers found a link between children who experience corporal punishment and those who later perpetrate acts of dating violence. The study is published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

“We wanted to determine if there is a link between childhood experiences with corporal punishment such as spanking, and later perpetration of dating violence,” said Dr. Jeff Temple, director of Behavioral Health and Research in UTMB’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and senior author of the study. “While parents may think this form of physical punishment is a good lesson, substantial research indicates that it does way more harm than good. The current study adds to this knowledge by showing that being physically punished as a child is linked to perpetrating dating violence as a teen and young adult. While we can’t say that spanking causes later violence, it follows that if a kid learns that physical punishment is a way to solve conflict, he or she may carry that over into conflicts with later intimate partners.”

For this study, UTMB researchers questioned young adults in their late teens and early 20s who have been part of ongoing longitudinal study since they were in high school. The participants were asked about childhood experiences with corporal punishment and physical abuse, as well as current experiences with dating violence.

There were more than 700 participants in the study from southeast Texas and about 19 percent reported having perpetrated some sort of dating violence. About 69 percent of the participants experienced corporal punishment as children. Analysis of the study results showed a significant positive association between corporal punishment and physical dating violence perpetration, even after controlling for several demographic variables and childhood physical abuse, according to the study authors.

“Although mounting evidence shows the many detrimental effects of corporal punishment, many parents, much of the general public, and even some schools continue thinking this is an acceptable means to punish misbehavior,” Temple said.

Global estimates suggest that about 80 percent of children worldwide are physically punished. Research, though, has found links between corporal punishment and childhood aggression and mental health problems, among other issues.

While many factors can contribute to dating violence, including mental health, attitudes toward women, beliefs about violence, problem solving skills, availability of weapons, and substance use, Temple and the other study authors argue that corporal punishment should be considered as a potential risk factor of violence within romantic relationships.

“Common sense and scientific research both tell us that children learn from their parents,” Temple said. “Parents are a child’s first look at relationships and how conflicts are handled. Corporal punishment is communicating to children that violence is an acceptable means of changing behavior. Not only is this an ineffective strategy for changing behavior or resolving conflict, our study and other research show that physical punishment negatively impacts the short and long-term health and behavior of children.”

Other authors of the study include Dr. Hye Jeong Choi, Department of Health Sciences, University of Missouri; Dr. Tyson Reuter, Psychology Houston, PC, The Center for Cognitive Behavioral Treatment; Dr. David Wolfe, Faculty of Education, Western University; Dr. Sheri Madigan, University of Calgary and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute; and UTMB’s Lauren Scott, Behavioral Health and Research, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.