Children who are smacked at a young age are more likely to suffer from poor mental health and have behavioural problems through to their teenage years, a new study has suggested.
Those who experienced “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), such as smacking and harsh parenting, had poorer outcomes than those who did not, the study led by UCL researchers revealed.
The study, published in the journal Child, Abuse and Neglect, builds on previous evidence by UCL researchers, which led to the smacking ban in Scotland last year.
Researchers say this new study adds more weight to calls to provide children in England with legal protection from smacking and physical punishment.
For the research, the team investigated the long-term effects of adverse experiences on children aged between three and 14.
To do this they analysed responses from a sample of over 8,000 members of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a research project following the lives of 19,000 children born in the UK between 2000 and 2001.
Data was provided at six points throughout the participants’ childhoods, at the age of nine months, three years, five, seven, 11 and 14.
Parents were asked how often they smacked their children or what they did when their children were naughty, for example sending them to their room or shouting at them.
They were also asked questions about parental conflict, alcohol misuse and psychiatric disorders.
The data was then matched with information, also obtained from the MCS, about the behaviour and wellbeing of their children, such as whether they fought with other children or exhibited a range of emotional problems.
Watch: France to approve a ban on smacking children.
Researchers found that two thirds of the children had experienced one ACE or more by the age of three, nearly one in five experienced two ACEs, and one in six experienced three or more.
The team said associations between adverse experiences and poor mental health followed a ‘dose-response’ pattern, with better outcomes for those experiencing no ACEs, and the poorest outcomes for those experiencing three or more ACEs.
According to the study authors the most common ACEs were parental depression, harsh parenting, smacking, use of force between parents and parental alcohol misuse.
The research revealed boys were slightly more likely than girls to be parented harshly and smacked, and also more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour, but overall there were no significant gender differences when it came to the effects on their mental health.
Commenting on the findings first author, Dr Leonardo Bevilacqua from the UCL Institute of Education, Department of Psychology and Human Development said: “It comes as no surprise that those children who have no or few adverse experiences as young children fare best of all and that those who have more negative experiences are more likely to behave antisocially and have poor mental health such as anxiety and depressive symptoms.
“Our research, however, shows just how long those problems can persist at what is such an important and formative part of a young person’s life.”
The study also found that parental conflict and parental depression were strongly associated with ‘internalising problems’ among children such as being nervous in new situations or lacking confidence, worrying, being down-hearted or tearful.
These behaviours were also shown to increase as the children got older from three to 14 and the more bad things they experienced, the more problems they exhibited.
Physical punishment and harsh parenting were strongly associated with worse mental health outcomes from childhood through to adolescence, particularly ‘externalising problems’ such as temper tantrums.
The authors note several limitations to the study, such as other influences on children’s wellbeing, and say further research would benefit from having multiple sources of data, such as from teachers as well as parents.
However, overall, the team believe their findings lend further support to existing calls to abolish physical punishment in all settings including the family.
“Our findings around the stark links between harsh parenting and physical punishment and poor mental health through childhood and into adolescence provide a clear message to policy-makers on the need to protect children and educate parents,” Dr Bevilacqua explains.
In Scotland a law against smacking children was passed in November 2020, meaning that the previous "justifiable assault" defence of physical punishment towards children under 16 is no longer acceptable.
A similar bill is passing through the legislative process in Wales but is yet to be introduced in England and Northern Ireland
Dr Rebecca Lacey, from UCL Epidemiology and Health Care said: “It is time for England to follow suit and take notice of this well-established body of research and accept the evidence around the long term negative effects of harsh parenting and physical punishment on children’s health and happiness is irrefutable.
“The current pandemic has placed additional pressures on couples and families and there are fears over increases in violence particularly towards women and children. Never a more important time then to ensure that those women and children are protected in law.”