Spanking and adult mental health impairment | Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center - Gundersen Health System
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Our faculty respond to the Child Abuse & Neglect article, Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience.


Lacie Ketelhut, program coordinator, Center for Effective Discipline

Most adults don’t consider the potential life-long impact of spanking as a form of discipline when responding to a child’s difficult behavior, but they should.

A recent study examined the practice of spanking in relation to Adverse Childhood Experiences (commonly referred to as ACEs). Examples of ACEs include abuse, neglect and other household dysfunction, such as parental substance abuse and incarceration. Children who have been exposed to ACEs have a greater risk of developing physical and mental health problems as an adult. The study indicated the long-term impacts of spanking are similar to those associated with physical and emotional abuse.

Unfortunately, spanking as a form of punishment continues to be passed on through generations and is a socially acceptable practice. Would parents continue spanking if they were aware of the potential negative impacts on child health and well-being?

Hitting is harmful in any relationship, especially within the parent-child relationship. The prevalence of corporal punishment in schools and homes is a public health issue that requires our attention and action. Join the growing initiative known as “No Hit Zone” to demonstrate your support for healthy relationships and safe environments that do not involve hitting.


Jane Straub, Victim assistance specialist, Jacob Wetterling Resource Center

Parenting or working with children can be rewarding, yet difficult. One of the reasons adults experience difficulties with children is we sometimes forget that children are not mini adults. Children are a work in progress. The brain is still under construction until the mid-twenties.

During a child’s developmental period they are fostering relationships, navigating their environment, and gaining independence. They often push boundaries to find out what the limits are. They may question everything to gain clarity and knowledge. They may be mad, sad, and glad within a five-minute time period.

Adults need to lay the foundation for self-regulation, conflict resolution, empathy, and compassion and emotion identification for children. This is especially important when a child has experienced a traumatic event, otherwise known as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Through their traumatic experience, they may have determined the world is not always safe, that an adult in their life is not trustworthy, or that they have no control over their life or their world. Their fight or flight response may be on high alert so we typically notice their behavior before we notice them.

Learning to create an environment to support children who have experienced traumatic events is more about a shift of perspective than a curriculum or blueprint. The most important component is to have an understanding of the different types of trauma. For example, trauma may be a one-time experience that taxes the well-being of the child such as an accident or death of a loved one. It may also be a chronic experience such as domestic violence or having a parent who suffers from mental illness or substance abuse.

Once we have a better understanding of trauma, we need to do everything within our control not to re-traumatize the child. Our body language, the words we use, and how we offer support can either help a child heal or cause them more harm.

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