Studies Show Harsh Discipline and Spanking Are All Harm and No Good – Try This, Instead

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Breaking news from Science Daily: The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to act out, defy their parents, engage in aggressive and antisocial behaviors and have both mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

According to a new study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, spanking is associated with the above-mentioned unintentional detriments and is not associated with either immediate or long-term compliance. Long story, short: This meta-analysis of 50 years of research on spanking proves what we already know – spanking doesn’t work.

You can find the study here.

I’ve worked with countless parents over the years. Sometimes parents come to me because they want to avoid spanking – they remember what it felt like and don’t want to repeat history but they don’t know what to do. Sometimes parents want to stop yelling. Sometimes parents feel they are too permissive and their kids don’t respect them. Others are baffled by the behavior they see and want to figure out what they can change in their parenting style to improve the family dynamics.

One thing I’ve heard over and over again: “I was spanked and I turned out fine.” This is a fairly normal defense mechanism parents use to pack away the hurt and focus on the positive. In many ways, it makes sense. People use these statements to prove that their parents didn’t hurt them – it’s hard to admit that the people you loved the most as a child hurt you in some way.

But the truth is in the research: This meta-analysis included over 160,000 children and is the most complete analysis of the effects of spanking to date.

I find that spanking and authoritarian parenting tend to be generational. This is how my parents did it, so this is how I will do it. When I help parents work through their stuffed emotions about these parenting styles, however, I find that a world of hurt hides beneath the surface.

Side note: New research out of Iowa State University found that “harsh parenting” may increase a child’s risk for obesity and poor physical health later in life. You can read more about that here

We aren’t destined to repeat the patterns of previous generations. You can love your parents and make different choices for your children. It’s okay to move forward and think about what works best for your little ones. 

One of the problems with finding a parenting style that suits each parent is that it’s fairly difficult to find adequate support once the kids are beyond the preschool years. Information and groups are everywhere for those first five years, but then, poof!, it all disappears. Parents are left to sort out conflicting advice found on the Internet.

Honestly? That’s why I wrote THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK. It’s a resource to help parents cope with the ups and downs that can and do occur along the way.

One of the most frequently asked questions I find in my inbox is this: How do I get started with positive parenting? How do I change everything and start over?

The good news is that if you’re asking that question, you’re already making changes. It takes time, patience and practice to try new parenting strategies. Change almost never occurs in a day – there will be slips and falls and tears and frustration, but the end result will be worth the effort.

Set healthy boundaries.

Kids need boundaries. Chances are, you already set some. When you set a certain bedtime and stick to it, that’s a healthy boundary. When you teach your kids look twice before crossing the street, that’s a healthy boundary. You get the point.

Kids come into this world full of curiosity and questions. They don’t have all the answers and they certainly don’t make the right choices every time, but they do look to their parents to fill in the blanks. It’s up to us to teach them about physical health, emotional health, safety, social interaction skills, problem solving skills and coping skills. Sounds like a lot, I know, but I’m willing to bet that you tackle some of these in small ways every single day.

Start with your expectations. I don’t have a ton of “rules” in my house, but I do expect kindness, respect, forgiveness and empathy. Do we mistakes? Yes. Do we work through them together? Absolutely.

Parent the child you have.

It’s fine to have a blueprint of rules and expectations. We all have certain ideas about how we want this parenting gig to go when we first begin the journey, but we also have to consider the individual needs of the kids we have. If you have a highly introverted child or a highly sensitive child on your hands, yelling and sarcasm will crush that child. Telling and extroverted child to “just stop talking” is akin to telling her to be someone else. Thinking out loud is how she processes her thoughts.

Get to know the individual needs of your child and meet him where he is. When we parent our kids with personality in mind, we help them thrive.

Remain calm.

Kids can really set parents off. Meltdowns, in particular, are a source of stress for many parents. It’s hard to know what to do when your kid is falling apart in the middle of the soccer field, after all.

Remain calm.

When parents meet anger with anger (or frustration with frustration), the situation only gets worse. Engage in deep breathing to calm your own reactions and empathize with your child. Stop worrying about what other people think and stay focused on the little one in your arms.

Be okay with big emotions.

Many parents are triggered by the feelings of their kids. Kids cry and parents want to fix the problem. Kids yell and parents want to hand out time outs. It takes time to learn how to process and cope with emotions, and yelling and crying are simply ways to vent those very big feelings.

Let your kids express their emotions. Let there be tears. Let there be foot stomping. Let there be yelling when times are tough. You can work on coping skills when they’re calm but shushing their feelings in the moment (or distracting them with candy) will only lead to a bigger meltdown later on.

Find the hidden picture.

All behavior is communication. Most kids don’t have the sophisticated social skills to say, “I’m feeling really jealous of Johnny right now and I would like more 1:1 time with mom, too,” so they hit Johnny, instead. Or they yell at Johnny. Or they hide Johnny’s toys and tease him while he tries to find them. Kids need help communicating their feelings, and it’s up to us to teach them

Look for clues to identify the underlying problem and talk to your child about how he might be feeling. Hunger, exhaustion, jealousy, anxiety, anger and loneliness can all result in behaviors that seem defiant on the surface. Dig beneath the surface to help to your child uncover his hidden emotions and learn to cope.

Try family meetings.

A weekly check in to talk about how things are going can be a great strategy for families. It’s a time to discuss what’s working, what’s not and how all family members are feeling about the current family dynamics.

When families communicate and listen to one another, they learn to work together for the greater good. Take the time to check in and engage in open and honest communication as a family. Your kids will benefit from having a voice, and you will find ways to improve the family dynamics as a result.

Image via Pexels

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)