But a new study from the University of Missouri, which was published in Developmental Psychology, shows those negative effects on a child’s development are long-lasting. The researchers noted that most studies on the consequences of physical discipline, such as spanking, only look at the effects for a year or two, while this study found that physical discipline during infancy can affect a child’s temperament and behavior well into fifth grade — and even in the adolescent years.
In the study, researchers looked at what types of discipline low-income European American and African-American parents — all of whom were enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project — typically used. When parents used severe discipline — spanking, yelling and screaming at children, or grabbing them harshly — starting as young as 15 months old, those children were more likely to show increased aggressive and delinquent behaviors in the fifth grade.
The study also revealed that African-American children are particularly vulnerable to being severely punished at 15 months old, which negatively affects their child development.
Gustavo Carlo, one of the study’s authors and the Millsap professor of diversity at the University of Missouri, tells Yahoo Beauty that more research is needed to understand why. “In other studies, in general, usually the findings of the negative outcomes associated with harsh discipline have been found for kids of all backgrounds,” he says. “I think one part of it is that this study, unlike others, is looking at long-term effects. It could be that harsh discipline has a negative impact on all kids, but maybe it has a particularly long-lasting effect on kids from African-American backgrounds.”
The researchers found that a child’s temperament is also influential in terms of handling harsh discipline — to a certain extent. For example, if a child has a naturally resilient temperament, he or she may be able to emotionally overcome a parent’s severe discipline, but there’s a limit. At a certain point, the child can’t bounce back and the severe punishment negatively affects development.
“Maybe there is a tipping point where some discipline is good, but if it becomes too harsh, too severe, it overwhelms any effects the child may bring to the situation from their temperamental qualities,” says Carlo.
However, Carlo notes that harsh discipline is just one of several factors that influence how children develop. “Parents at a certain point may yell and [severely] discipline their children, but how our kids turn out — whether they turn out to be relatively good kids or bad kids — is not going to depend solely on how you discipline a child,” he says. “But this is one piece of that puzzle.”
He adds: “As we identify what are all of the different factors that influence child development, the severity of the discipline is one factor. The temperament is another, as well as who the kid hangs out with, whether it’s good kids or bad kids. [Severe discipline] is one piece of it and increases the likelihood that your child may turn out to have less positive consequences.”
Barbara Greenberg, a teen, adolescent, child, and family psychologist, notes that spanking a child is modeling a behavior that you don’t want your child to mimic — namely, hitting. “Modeling is the most effective form of learning, and our parents are our most important role models,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “If you’re treated aggressively, you’re going to act aggressively. Kids need options to know how to handle their emotions. If they’re shown aggression rather than learning how to calm down they’ll behave in kind.”
Greenberg also points out the psychological damage of physical discipline. “Being hit affects your self-esteem and creates shame — it’s one of the worst human emotions,” she says.
She acknowledges, though, that sometimes parents are harsh in their discipline because they’re completely fried. “It’s hard when kids are acting out and you’re exhausted,” Greenberg says. “We know that some parents are tired and depleted, but my hope is that when parents feel they’ve reached the end of their rope they should turn to other adults in their life to give them a break. They should learn to identify when they’re at that point.”
Although physical punishment can have serious consequences, that’s not to say parents shouldn’t discipline their children. “It’s not to take this to mean you should never use discipline, but what we ought to be conscious about is how harsh are we being with the child and how often do we severely punish them?” says Carlo. “Sometimes it is important to be strict with them, especially if they’re in a dangerous situation,” such as running out into the street.
But in general, Carlo says that spanking isn’t the most effective way to discipline a child since it creates fear and distrust, and there are better ways to get your “don’t do that again” message across. “If you’re yelling at the kid and shaking them harshly or spanking them, it’s hard for the child to process whatever moral message you’re trying to transmit to them,” he says. “They’re going to be so emotionally in pain it will be hard for them to get the message. In the short term, it stops the transgression, but in the long term the child becomes more concerned about the punishment and less about the moral values we’re trying to teach them.”
He continues: “Let them know what they did was wrong, but more importantly, that they come to understand and appreciate the reasons why what they did was wrong and why that’s important. Because that’s what they’re going to take with them when you’re not around to help guide them.”
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