Physical Punishment and Signs of Mental Distress in Normal Adolescents

By Bachar, Eytan; Canetti, Laura et al. | Adolescence, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Physical Punishment and Signs of Mental Distress in Normal Adolescents


Bachar, Eytan, Canetti, Laura, Bonne, Omer, DeNour, Atara Kaplan, Shalev, Arieh Y., Adolescence


During the past two decades, physical punishment of children has become an issue of public concern rather than a private family affair. This growing societal interest has led to greater research and improvements in methodology (Black, 1991). Data indicate an association between physical punishment and deficiencies in psychological and social development. Several studies also point to a greater prevalence of psychopathology in physically abused children.

Trickett (1993) compared 29 families of physically abused children (ages 4-11) with 29 control families, matched for race, gender of the child, and family socioeconomic status (SES). Using structured interviews, standardized tests, and standardized observations, he found that the physically abused children had poorer cognitive maturity, poorer interpersonal problem-solving skills, and less social competence.

Kurtz and associates (1993) compared 22 physically abused children (ages 8-16), 47 neglected children, and controls. They reported that the physically abused children displayed pervasive and severe academic and socioemotional problems at school.

Allen and Tarnowsky (1989) compared physically abused and nonabused children. They found that the former evidenced more dysphoric characteristics, heightened externality (on a locus of control scale), lower self-esteem, and greater hopelessness concerning the future.

Oates, Forrest, and Peacock (1985) studied the self-esteem of children (ages 4-14) who were admitted to hospital emergency rooms because of physical abuse. Using structured interviews and a self-concept scale, they found that the abused children saw themselves as having significantly fewer friends than did the comparison sample. They also played with friends less often. They were less ambitious than the nonabused children with regard to the occupations to which they aspired, and scored significantly lower in self-concept. However, the study did not control for SES. As Rutter (1989) points out, since social disabilities go hand in hand with parenting problems, it is difficult to ascertain (unless SES is controlled satisfactorily) whether psychosocial deficiencies in battered children are due to the physical punishment or to the broader context of the socioeconomic environment.

Salzinger et al. (1993) compared the social behavior and peer status of 87 physically abused children (ages 8-12) and 87 case-matched classmates. Abused subjects had lower peer status and less positive reciprocity with peers chosen as friends. They were rated by peers as more aggressive and less cooperative, and by parents and teachers as more disturbed. These results raise questions as to the role of the child in physical abuse and factors that heighten the risk of abuse (Ammerman, 1991).

Haskett and Kistner (1991) investigated the peer interaction of 14 physically abused children and 14 control children (ages 3-6) using behavior observation, teacher ratings, and peer psychometric ratings. Abused children initiated fewer positive interactions with peers and exhibited higher proportions of negative behavior than did nonabused children. Teachers viewed abused children as more behaviorally disturbed.

Several studies have reported that a higher proportion of adults suffering from psychiatric disturbances had been physically abused during childhood. Bremner et al. (1993) compared rates of childhood physical abuse in 38 Vietnam combat veterans who sought treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 28 Vietnam combat veterans without PTSD who sought treatment for medical disorders. Premilitary and military stressful and traumatic events were assessed. Subjects with PTSD had higher rates of childhood physical abuse than did subjects without PTSD. The association between childhood physical abuse and PTSD persisted after controlling for the differences in the level of combat exposure between the two groups. The authors concluded that childhood physical abuse may be an antecedent of combat-related PTSD. …

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