General News Research — 16 July 2012

A new study by Tracie Afifi, PhD, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, attempted to look at the connection between adult mental illness and childhood punishment. He was specifically looking at punishments such as spanking, slapping, hitting, and grabbing.

The study was careful to rule out “severe child punishments” and mistreatments that have long been established to lead to mental health problems later in life.  However, even in the absence of abuse (severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect) all forms of physical punishment were associated with an increased risk of mental disorders in adulthood.

Approximately 35,000 adults, 20 or older, were surveyed and asked about current mental health conditions, as well as the incidence of physical punishment experienced during childhood.  Specifically participants were asked, “As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?”

Possible responses were 1. never, 2. almost never, 3. sometimes, 4. fairly often, and 5. very often.

Participants who answered sometimes or higher (3, 4, or 5) were defined as “having experienced harsh physical punishment.”  Participants who reported severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect were intentionally excluded from the study.

The final group of participants included just 21,000 adults.  Of these 1,258 reported having received “harsh physical punishment”.  These participants were more likely to be male, black, and to have a family history of dysfunction.

The results of the survey showed that adults who reported receiving physical punishments during childhood had a greater risk of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and substance abuse dependence, and even several personality disorders.

“Up to 7% of some adult disorders can be attributed to harsh physical punishment in childhood”  Tracie Afifi, PhD

Even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors and family dysfunction, “harsh physical punishment” was associated with an increased risk of most mental disorders.

  • The risk of major depression was 41 percent higher
  • The risk of mania was 93 percent higher
  • The risk of any mood disorder was 49 percent higher
  • The risk of any anxiety disorder was 36 percent higher
  • The risk of any alcohol abuse or dependence was 59 percent higher
  • The risk of any drug abuse or dependence was 53 percent higher.

The findings of this study provide strong evidence that harsh physical punishment in childhood,  even in the absence of abuse, is related to adult mental disorder in adults

Source material: journal of pediatrics,  medpage,

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