Parental use of physical punishment early in childhood may be associated with subsequent maladaptive behaviors such as child aggression and impaired social information processing. There are links between certain childhood behaviors and risk for parental use of physical punishment, although cause and effect are difficult to establish with these associations.  Higher rates of physical punishment correlate with maternal depression and domestic violence.

In a recent study by Silverstein et al, 2008, researchers assessed 12,764 mother-child pairs to determine the combined impact of maternal depression and violence exposure on physical punishment practices. Over the course of a two-year study, each mother-child pair was assigned to 1 of 4 categories: absence of maternal depressive symptoms and violence, presence of depressive symptoms only, violence only, or both depressive symptoms and violence. Teachers assessed children’s self-control and externalizing behaviors: attention problems, aggressive behavior, and rule-breaking actions.

The study revealed that maternal depressive symptoms and violence between adult partners were associated with an increased likelihood of physical punishment. If co-existent, these two exposures were associated with greater likelihood of physical punishment. Among mothers reporting physical punishment, there was no statistically significant association between maternal depression or violence exposure alone with frequency of spanking, after controlling for child behaviors; however, when maternal depression and violence exposure were present together, mothers tended to report a higher frequency of physical punishment regardless of child behavior.

Taken together, this study offers further evidence for combined adverse effects of maternal depression and violence exposure on the children of affected women. It also implies that subsequent research on maternal depression should include factors of domestic violence and maternal physical punishment of children.

Snezana Milanovic, MD, MSc

Weiss B, Dodge KA, Bates JE, Pettit GS. Some consequences of early harsh discipline: child aggression and a maladaptive social information processing style. Child Dev 1992;63(6):1321-35.

Silverstein M, Augustyn M, Young R, Zuckerman R. The relationship between maternal depression, in-home violence and use of physical punishment: What is the role of child behaviour? Arch. Dis. Child. published online 11 Sep 2008.