UNC study shows link between spanking and physical abuse

August 19, 2008 — Spanking has been, and still is, a common method of child discipline used by American parents.

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But mothers who report that they or their partner spanked their child in the past year are nearly three times more likely to state that they also used harsher forms of punishment than those who say their child was not spanked, according to a new study led by the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Such punishments included behaviors considered physically abusive by the researchers, such as beating, burning, kicking, hitting with an object somewhere other than the buttocks, or shaking a child less than 2 years old.

“In addition, increases in the frequency of spanking are associated with increased odds of abuse, and mothers who report spanking on the buttocks with an object – such as a belt or a switch – are nine times more likely to report abuse, compared to mothers who report no spanking with an object,” said Adam J. Zolotor, M.D., the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the department of family medicine in the UNC School of Medicine.

The study will be published on the Web site of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on Tuesday (Aug. 19) and is scheduled for publication in the print version of the journal on Sept. 17.

Although some surveys show evidence of a modest decline in spanking over the last 30 years, recent surveys show that up to 90 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5 years are spanked by their parents at least occasionally.

Zolotor and his co-authors conducted an anonymous telephone survey on parenting of a probability sample of 1,435 mothers in North Carolina and South Carolina in 2002.

Forty-five percent of the mothers reported that they or their partner had spanked their child in the previous 12 months and 25 percent reported spanking with an object on the buttocks. Four percent reported using harsher forms of punishment that met the study’s definition of physical abuse.

Statistical analyses of the survey data found that while any spanking was associated with increased risk of abuse, spanking with an object was strongly associated with abuse. Only 2 percent of the mothers who reported no spanking reported use of physically abusive punishment. In comparison, 6 percent of mothers who reported spanking and 12 percent of mothers who reported spanking with an object also reported abusive punishment.

“This study demonstrated for the first time that parents who report spanking children with an object and parents who frequently spank children are much more likely to report other harsh punishment acts consistent with physical abuse,” Zolotor said.

The study concluded that efforts to reduce spanking, especially with an object, through media, educational and legislative means may reduce physical child abuse.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “striking a child with an object is unacceptable and may be dangerous.” Zolotor said the study supports this policy statement by underscoring that while spanking increases the likelihood of physical abuse, frequent spanking and spanking with an object are far more likely to lead to abuse. He said this may be due to the limited effectiveness of discipline when parents have few other tools for discipline (such as positive reinforcement and time out).

Co-authors of the study were Adrea D. Theodore, M.D., assistant professor in the department of social medicine in the UNC School of Medicine; Molly C. Berkoff, M.D., assistant professor in the department of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine; Desmond K. Runyan, M.D., Dr.P.H., professor of social medicine and pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine and adjunct professor of epidemiology in the UNC School of Public Health; and Jen Jen Chang, Ph.D., who earned her doctorate at UNC and now is an assistant professor at the Saint Louis University School of Public Health.

This study was supported by the Duke Endowment and the Sunshine Lady Foundation.

Note: Zolotor can be reached at (919) 843-4817 or (919) 815-4302, or ajzolo@med.unc.edu.

Multimedia note: The UNC-produced video interview with Zolotor can be made available to broadcast outlets. Additionally, Zolotor is available for television and radio interviews in the Carolina News Studio (http://uncnews.unc.edu/broadcast-studio.html)

School of Medicine contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596, patric_lane@unc.edu

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