Fifty-five percent of study respondents reported as being spanked as children. Spanking increased their chances of experiencing mental health problems such as heavy drinking and depression.

A new study by Andrew Grogan-Kaylor and Shawna Lee, both U-M associate professors of social work, and colleagues indicates the violence caused by spanking can lead adults to feel depressed, attempt suicide, drink at moderate-to-heavy levels or use illegal drugs.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

By definition, spanking is the act of using physical force to inflict pain, but not injury, to a child to control or correct behavior. It isn’t categorized as one of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) which includes neglect, household dysfunction, and having an incarcerated relative, but it is a common form of discipline.

In fact, spanking is legal in North America even if the growing body of literature supporting its potentially harmful effects on adult health outcomes has led to it being banned in 51 regions and countries around the world.

A new study finds that individuals who were spanked as children can experience severe mental health problems in adulthood. As such, this begs the question of whether spanking should perhaps be categorized as an ACE.

Childhood Spanking

To gather their findings, researchers used data from the CDC-Kaiser ACE study which involved 8,300 participants between the ages of 19 and 97. Participants completed self-reports where they were asked how often they were spanked in their first 18 years of life, their household background, and if an adult inflicted on them some form of physical abuse such as shoving, slapping, and pushing, or emotional abuse such as insults and curses.

Among the participants, 55 percent reported being spanked as children, with men being having more childhood spanking experiences than women. What’s more, minority participants were more likely to experience childhood spanking than white participants.

Results revealed an association between childhood spanking and increased odds of mental health problems such as depressive affect, street drug use, moderate to heavy alcohol consumption, and suicide attempts.

Preventing Physical Abuse

Because of the results, researchers believe that spanking is empirically similar to physical and emotional abuse, and must be considered an ACE given its associations with serious mental health problems in adulthood. What’s more, previous reports have also shown that spanking leads to increased risks of a child being physically abused.

As such, researchers find that the results of their study reveal just how important it is to prevent child maltreatment as well as harmful parenting even before it occurs. This could be done by supporting evidence-based programs that will highlight the importance of preventing early life adversities and promoting positive parenting by educating parents.

“Prevention should be a critical direction for public health initiatives to take,” said Shawna Lee of the University of Michigan, coauthor of the study.


The study was published in Child Abuse & Neglect.