Hitting kids may increase their odds of later mental illness, study finds

July 2, 2012

Kids who are hit, slapped or otherwise subjected to “harsh” physical punishment have greater odds of suffering mental-health problems later in life, according to a study published Monday morning in the journal Pediatrics.

Canadian researchers looked at data from 2004 and 2005 for 34,653 adults age 20 and older from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, a large national U.S. survey.

After adjusting for socio-demographic factors and history of family dysfunction, they found being “sometimes” or more frequently slapped, pushed, grabbed, shoved or hit was associated with increased risk of anxiety disorders, mood disorders, several kinds of personality disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Almost 6 percent of respondents reported having experienced such harsh physical punishment during childhood. Males were more likely than females to report such experiences, and blacks were more likely to do so than whites. Likelihood of harsh physical punishment increased as levels of education and income increased.

The study further found that harsh physical punishment may be linked to later mental damage even when it occurs in the absence of more severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical or emotional neglect, or exposure to intimate partner violence. Records for respondents who reported such circumstances in their lives were excluded from this analysis.

Based on the findings, the researchers estimate that between 2 percent and 7 percent of cases of mental disorder (with percentages varying according to the kind of mental disorder) are attributable to harsh physical punishment.

The authors note that their work adds to the growing body of knowledge that physical punishment is not good for kids or the adults they will become. They suggest their findings could help inform discussions between pediatricians and parents about avoiding physical punishment. In a broader sense, they write, averting physical punishment could lighten the burden mental disorders place on society.

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