Is Corporal Punishment a Cause of Mental Illness?

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It’s been known for a long time that punishment is a relatively ineffective way to shape behavior. Now researchers are asking: can severe physical punishment in childhood even cause mental illness in later life?

Researchers have long known that severe forms of physical, mental, or emotional abuse in childhood are correlated with increased risk of mental illness in adulthood. That’s because numerous studies have found such types of abuse to be common in the childhood histories of adults later diagnosed with major mental illnesses such as Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Substance Abuse and Dependence, Eating Disorders, and even Personality Disorders. But very few studies have examined whether less severe forms of physical trauma in childhood had an effect on adult mental health. That’s why a team of researchers from The University of Manitoba and McMaster University in Canada conducted a large scale survey of the issue. They knew from the outset the controversy that surrounds the use of physical discipline methods in child rearing, so they took considerable care in defining the parameters of their study.

The research team used data collected from a large epidemiological survey of alcohol use disorders and other related conditions. They sorted out cases of more harsh forms of physical discipline (e.g., slapping, pushing, shoving, hitting, grabbing, etc.) from milder forms, and also separated these forms of punishment from instances of more serious physical, mental, or emotional abuse. And the findings they reported in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that experiencing harsher forms of physical discipline as a child, even in the absence of more serious physical, mental, or emotional abuse, increased the odds of developing a clinically significant mental health condition in adulthood.

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Although the correlation between harsh childhood physical discipline and mental illness in adulthood is strong, it can’t be directly inferred that there is a causal link between corporal punishment and various clinical conditions. It’s possible, for example, that children predisposed toward the development of various mental illnesses might be more challenging to discipline in their early years, thus increasing the odds they will be recipients of harsher forms of discipline. But such an explanation would be a stretch, and there’s little empirical support for the notion. Still, one can’t simply say that physical discipline causes mental illness. But what is becoming increasingly apparent, however, is that a wide range of mental health problems in adults might, at least in part, be attributable to inadequate and/or harsh methods of teaching and discipline in the formative years.

The results of this latest research in Canada is likely to further fuel the debate about the value of corporal punishment. Views on this issue vary considerably. And as highlighted in a recent article by Dr Misty Hook (“What Are the Consequences when Abuse is Disguised as Love?”), there is an equally wide range of opinion about what kinds of authoritarian measures constitute reasonable methods for instilling respect versus what kinds of cruelty and abuse are sometimes perpetrated in the name of “love.” When it comes to physical discipline, there is no broad consensus.

Clinicians and researchers have long known that punishment is a relatively ineffective way to shape behavior. Behavior is much more reliably shaped through reinforcement. For punishment to have any constructive impact at all, it has to be immediate (i.e., it must occur within 5 seconds of the behavior you wish to extinguish), certain (i.e., perceived by the person receiving it to be an inevitable, immediate consequence at any time and in any circumstance or location the behavior is exhibited), and of optimal intensity (intense enough to make the person take notice and be deterred from continuing a behavior but also not so intense as to simply traumatize them). And outside of the possible benefit of immediacy (e.g., an immediate wrist slap as a child goes to grab something dangerous), it’s hard to think of many circumstances where physical methods of punishment are desirable. True, there are some situations where it’s really important for an individual to be brought to a point of “submission” on an issue. But using power to force that issue only breeds resentment and often spawns a half-hearted “assent” as opposed to true submission.

The debate about corporal punishment is likely to continue for some time. But hopefully the results of this most recent study, combined with all the previous related studies, will help re-focus our attention on punishment and its usefulness in shaping human behavior. We have always known that punishment can influence behavior. And most societies still have a myriad of punishment vehicles deeply embedded in their systems of jurisprudence. But it’s become all too clear that most of the ways we punish violate just about every rule for effective behavior modification. And we’re also learning that by punishing our children in the wrong ways, we may be spawning a whole hosts of problems for them later in life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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