Your child is throwing the temper tantrum of the century. Scratching, hitting, biting, spitting, and screaming—it cannot get much worse. What do you do? Do you spank your child or will that just make matters worse?
Spanking is one of the most controversial forms of child discipline. Most child development and child care professionals agree that spanking is ineffective and may lead to more aggressive behavior. But many individuals and groups support or encourage spanking as part of a disciplinary approach for children. According to the National Survey of Early Childhood Health, other commonly used forms of discipline include taking away toys or treats, yelling, using time out, and giving explanations.
So what should parents do? Is spanking the best way to discipline children or are other methods more effective?
Discipline is a way of teaching children the restraint and values necessary to become competent and independent adults. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an effective discipline system contains 3 vital elements:
- Positive, supportive parent-child relationships
- Positive reinforcement strategies to increase desired behaviors
- Removing reinforcement strategies or applying punishment to reduce or eliminate undesired behaviors
Parents should reward good behaviors and punish bad behaviors. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) suggests rewarding your child’s good behavior with things like:
- An extra bedtime story
- Delaying bedtime by a half hour
- A preferred snack
- Points toward a special toy or privilege
Bad behaviors, on the other hand, can be punished by:
- Ignoring the behavior
- Sending your child to time-out
- Taking away privileges
Many parents report that they use spanking to punish unacceptable behaviors, but most child development and child care professionals agree that spanking is among the least effective forms of discipline.
Consequences of Spanking
Research shows that although spanking can stop an undesirable behavior in the short-term, its effectiveness diminishes with each subsequent spanking. The AAP has identified the following consequences of spanking:
- Spanking children younger than 18 months increases the chances of physical injury, and the child is unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment.
- Repeated spanking may cause agitated, aggressive behavior in the child that may lead to physical altercation between parent and child.
- Spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in children.
- Spanking and threats of spanking lead to altered parent-child relationships, making discipline more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents.
- Spanking is no more effective than other disciplinary approaches, and reliance on spanking as a disciplinary approach makes other strategies less effective.
- A pattern of spanking may be sustained or increased and possibly lead to significant physical injury.
Other studies have shown that spanking prior to the age of 2 was strongly associated with behavior problems when children reached school age. These findings were significant only for white, non-Hispanic children.
Another study in the journal showed a link between harsh physical punishment and risk for mood disorders, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and personality disorders.
For these reasons, the AAP strongly discourages any form of striking a child. They recommend that, if the spanking is spontaneous, parents should calmly explain why they did it, how angry they felt, and perhaps apologize to the child.
Alternatives to Spanking
If spanking is not effective, what is? Many child development professionals recommend extinction approaches, or the removal of positive reinforcement after unacceptable behavior. Two effective and commonly used extinction approaches are the time-out method and the removal of privileges.
The Time-out Method
The time-out method is highly effective for young children. To use this option, you must first set ground rules. Make it clear to your child which behaviors will warrant a time-out. Select a quiet, removed location where your child will have to stay.
When your child misbehaves, give one warning, then put him or her in time-out if the behavior continues. Set a timer right away. The AAFP recommends 1 minute for each year of age. You should stay within earshot and reset the timer if your child continues to misbehave. After the behavior has stopped and the time is over, allow your child to leave the designated area.
Removal of Privileges
Removal of privileges usually works best for older children and adolescents. Make a short list of important rules your child must follow, and let him or her know what the consequences of breaking the rules are.
Removing privileges such as watching TV, playing video games, or even driving for a set amount of time is effective in discouraging future rule breaking. Another effective strategy that works well with adolescents and even older children is not allowing them to participate in activities, such as parties or outings with friends.
While time-out and removal of privileges both work well for punishing and discouraging bad behavior, you should also encourage good behavior by rewarding it. Praise your child when he or she deserves it. Extend your child’s privileges when he or she follows the rules. Develop a points system that allows your child to earn points toward a reward with good behavior.
By teaching your child that bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded, you will have instilled important values in your child that will help him or her become a self-sufficient, well-adjusted young adult.
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Last reviewed April 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 4/4/2017