How Physical Punishment Affects The Mental Health Of Children

According to the United Nations, any punishment involving the use of physical force, no matter how light, that causes discomfort to the child can be termed corporal punishment.

Even non-physical forms of punishment can be degrading. These too are included under corporal punishment. These often accompany physical discipline, including punishments, which humiliate, threaten, scare or ridicule the child.

Implications: 

Attempts at physically disciplining the child do little to improve their behaviour.  Over time, it can lead to emotional, academic and behavioural problems. Spanking children does not teach them right from wrong, as they haven’t understood the need to do the right thing in the future. 

They would be on their best behaviour when the adult is around but do whatever they want during their absence. Parents who use physical punishment on their children may also teach them that it is okay to resolve conflicts with violence. 

Spanking a child will also elevate aggression levels, and the relationship quality between parent and child will diminish. Physical discipline further has the potential to escalate into abuse.

UNICEF’s data shows that one in two children aged 6-17 years live in countries where corporal punishment in schools is not prohibited. The prevalence of physical punishments was more than 70% in Africa and Central America and over 60% in Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia. It is more commonly used at primary and secondary school levels.

Effect on Mental Health:

Children experiencing violence during their formative years will often see permanent impacts on their mindset. Adults with chronic mental health disorders and emotional instability have suffered from physical abuse in childhood.

Any form of corporal punishment has the capacity to trigger psychological responses. Apart from experiencing emotions like pain, sadness, fear, anger, shame and guilt, being threatened also leads to physiological stress. This is a wake-up call to countries like India, where spanking is a socially acceptable form of punishment. 

Children who experience physical punishment tend to exhibit extreme hormonal reactivity to stress that overloads their biological systems, including nervous, cardiovascular and nutritional systems, and changes function and structure of the brain.

Despite being widely acceptable, spanking affects the brain the same way as severe abuse, thereby undermining the oft-cited argument that less severe forms of punishment are somehow okay.

Aside from mental health disorders, corporal punishment also leads to a range of adverse outcomes. These outcomes can be both immediate and long-term:

  • Physical harm that results in children being injured or disabled
  • Behavioural and anxiety disorders
  • Excessive display of aggression
  • Depression and low self-esteem
  • Self-harm and attempts at suicide
  • Alcohol and drug dependency 
  • Negatively impacts cognitive development
  • Reduced academic success and higher chances of being a school dropout
  • Irreversible damage to family relationships as the child feels rejected, hurt and frightened

Alternatives:

Discipline should be about teaching them to control themselves, instead of parents controlling kids. Some more effective alternatives to corporal punishment would be: 

  • Take away certain privileges, such as the child’s favourite toy, for 24 hours, or more or less. 
  • If it’s a younger child, give them a time-out. 
  • If your child hurts someone, give them an extra chore to make amends.
  • Teach them about logical consequences. If your kids break something, make them do odd jobs for money to fix it.

Inflicting corporal punishment amounts to the violation of a child’s rights. It infringes on their right to be protected from violence, right to be treated with dignity, and right to freedom from torture and other inhuman or degrading forms of punishment.

While adults are guaranteed legal protection from assault, most children do not enjoy this safeguard. Prohibiting corporal punishment ensures that children are entitled to equal protection under the law just as adults are. As the most vulnerable members of society, children need more, not less, protection from violence. At the end, it’s not just about their rights, but also about their welfare, which is what these rights are there to promote.

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