Corporal Punishment of Adolescents by Parents: A Risk Factor in the Epidemiology of Depression, Suicide, Alcohol Abuse, Child Abuse, and Wife Beating

By Straus, Murray A.; Kantor, Glenda Kaufman | Adolescence, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Corporal Punishment of Adolescents by Parents: A Risk Factor in the Epidemiology of Depression, Suicide, Alcohol Abuse, Child Abuse, and Wife Beating


Straus, Murray A., Kantor, Glenda Kaufman, Adolescence


The terms physical punishment and corporal punishment are used here as synonyms to refer to an act by parents intended to cause the child physical pain, but not injury, for purposes of correction or control of misbehavior. The 1975 and 1985 National Family Violence Surveys revealed that over 90% of American parents use corporal punishment as just defined. This is consistent with a large number of other studies (Straus, 1991) and with the belief that corporal punishment is used by parents with toddlers or young children. The first issue to be addressed here is the extent to which this pattern continues into adolescence.

The second and central issue addressed is whether use of corporal punishment of adolescents is associated with psychosocial problems in adulthood. In contrast to physical "abuse" of a child, which is universally regarded with revulsion, 84% of all Americans regard hitting children as "sometimes necessary" (Straus, 1991) and harmless provided it does not cross the line to physical abuse. The same acceptance seems to be true of social scientists. Numerous studies have investigated the long-term disabling effects of physical "abuse" (Widom, 1989), but despite the prevalence of corporal punishment, only a few studies have considered the possibility that "legitimate" corporal punishment is also a risk factor for psychological maladaptation in adulthood, and most of those have been confined to increased risk of aggression (Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder, & Huesman, 1977).

Adult psychological distress, alcohol abuse, and violence toward family members are all problems which share a complex etiology though not necessarily a common etiology. We are not suggesting that these maladaptive behaviors are caused solely by corporal punishment in adolescence, but that corporal punishment needs to be considered as a significant risk factor which increases the probability of psychological disorders. The social and psychological dynamics underlying this association are presumed to resemble those of other forms of violent victimization in children and adults. Previous research has shown that victimization is a traumatic process which may result in interpersonal deficits such as feelings of powerlessness (Straus & Gimpel, 1994), diminished self-esteem, and self-defeating interpersonal strategies (McGrath, Keita, Strickland, & Russo, 1990; Herman, 1992). These characteristics are also consistent with psychological profiles of depression (American Psychiatric Association, 1987), alcoholism (Cox, 1987; Goluke, Landeen, & Meadows, 1983), and intra-family abuse (Hamberger & Hastings, 1986).

One of the reasons so few parents and social scientists question the wisdom of "spare the rod and spoil the child" and why so few researchers have investigated the potential adverse effects, is probably that, in legal terms it is permissible; and in terms of informal cultural norms, it is expected of parents when a child persists in misbehaving. Both the law and the informal culture assume that, when done "in moderation," corporal punishment is harmless and sometimes necessary. This research started from assumptions that are almost the opposite of that aspect of American culture. It tests the hypothesis that the greater the use of corporal punishment, the greater the probability, later in life, of depression, suicidal ideation, alcohol abuse, wife assaults, and child abuse.

The findings reported here must be regarded as tentative because they are based on recall data about corporal punishment, whereas an adequate test of this hypothesis requires prospective data from a large and representative sample. Such research will take many years and large funding, but could have vast implications for primary prevention of family violence and psychological problems. Preliminary evidence is therefore needed as one basis for deciding whether to invest in a prospective study. This evidence is necessary because, as noted, most of the public and most social scientists would otherwise reject the value of such an investment. …

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