Academic journal article Family Relations

Child Depressive Symptoms, Spanking, and Emotional Support: Differences between African American and European American Youth

Academic journal article Family Relations

Child Depressive Symptoms, Spanking, and Emotional Support: Differences between African American and European American Youth

Article excerpt


Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-Mother and Child samples, we explored the relationships among child and adolescent depressive symptoms, spanking, and emotional support offered to youth. We present cross-sectional and change models for both African Americans and European Americans. Findings showed that regardless of race, spanking is associated with more depressive symptoms in the cross-sectional analysis but does not appear to maintain this relationship over time. With regard to emotional support, depressive symptoms for African American youth are inversely related to the emotional support their mothers provide for them in cross-sectional models, but the benefit does not persist in our change models. For European American children and adolescents, emotional support is associated with fewer depressive symptoms in the short term and over time.

Key Words: child depressive symptoms, discipline, emotional support, parenting, race/ethnicity, spanking.

A plethora of research indicates that spanking children as a measure of correction is positively related to the frequency and intensity of acting out or externalizing behavior (Gershoff, 2002; Larzelere, 2000; Molnar, Buka, Brennan, Holton, & Earls, 2003; Polaha, Lazelere, Shapiro, & Pettit, 2004; Straus, 1991, 2001). Spanking includes activities such as striking on the buttocks, slapping a child's hand, or pinching a child on the extremities (Gershoff; Straus & Stewart, 1999). Although spanking includes causing the child pain for the purpose of correction, this type of discipline does not involve physical harm (Gershoff). This form of physical discipline can be distinguished from physical abuse, which consists of beatings or other forms of physical force that inflict bodily injury. In the United States, spanking is viewed as a normative practice; however, physical abuse is not (Baumrind, 1996; Turner & Muller, 2004). Although researchers continue to debate whether increased behavior problems represent a direct detriment of spanking or more complex family processes (see, e.g., Baumrind vs. Gershoff), the positive association between harsh disciplinary strategies and behavior problems, especially those related to child aggression, is no longer in question (Deater-Deckard, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1996; Grogan-Kaylor, 2005).

The extent to which spanking is positively related to mental health or internalizing problems among youth has been less explored (for an exception, see Turner & Muller, 2004). Existing research does indicate that children who routinely experience harsh physical punishment (including spanking) are at greater risk for depression as well as a host of other psychological adjustment problems (Straus, 1994; Turner & Muller). Further, research in this area is less clear about how the process shaping child outcomes with regard to spanking may vary by race. It is clear that African American parents are more likely than European Americans to spank their children (Deater-Deckard et al., 1996; Giles-Sims, Straus, & Sugarman, 1995); however, whether higher levels of spanking among African Americans result in a greater incidence of problematic behavior remains equivocal (Polaha et al., 2004; Turner & Muller). With regard to acting out behavior, some racial comparisons have indicated that European American children who are spanked exhibit more behavior problems than their African American counterparts (Deater-Deckard et al.), whereas other research has found no race differences (McLoyd & Smith, 2002). Therefore, a major goal of this research was to understand whether the relationship between spanking and depressive symptoms differs for African Americans and European Americans.

Our investigation contributes to the research on spanking and child psychological adjustment in three important ways. First, accounting for relevant child and family characteristics (e.g., maternal depressed mood, family structure, socioeconomic status, age, and gender), we examined the relationship between spanking and depressive symptoms for youth born to a nationally representative sample of African American and European American mothers. …

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