Is Verbal Abuse More Damaging to Kids than Spanking?

OCTOBER 30, 2010

Verbal dispraise, a method of punishment in which parents use harsh tones and sarcasm to criticize children, is associated with early childhood impairment, and may be more harmful than corporal punishment, according to findings presented Saturday, Oct. 30 at the AACAP 57th Annual Meeting in New York, NY.

In a session entitled, “Parental Discipline, Parental Stress, and Preschool Mental Health,” Helen L. Egger, MD, of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, discussed findings from the Preschool Anxiety Study 2006-2010, a study of 4,500 children ages two through five who were recruited from pediatric primary care practices in the Durham area.

The results were quite surprising, she said. “This paints a very different picture of what we’ve seen before.” For the study, Egger and colleagues conducted comprehensive psychiatric interviews with parents and performed assessments to identify children who met the criteria for anxiety disorder. The goal, she noted, was to determine whether parental discipline predicts impairment and/or psychopathology in children.

The researchers interviewed subject using the Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment (PAPA) model; measures included discipline practices, parent characteristics, child psychiatry disorders and impairment, the parenting stress index, a mood and feelings questionnaire for parents, and the Beck Depression Inventory Scale.

The majority of parents were married with a mean age of 33 years; although education levels varied, the majority had a college degree. Of the final sample, which included 814 parents, about 90-100% reported using some sort of punishment, with the most common practices being loss of privilege or a “time out.”

More key findings are as follows:

  • About 50% reported using corporal punishment; this practice, however, was more common in boys and in African American children.
  • In terms of punishment frequency, there are significant differences in gender, age, and race, with boys, toddlers and African American children being spanked more often
Factors associated with a higher rate of corporal punishment included: parental stress, depression and anxiety symptoms; dissatisfaction with partner’s help or communications; arguments and physical violence between adults; drug and alcohol use; and history of psychiatric problems such as arrest or hospitalization. In cases where there was domestic violence and a history of arrest, parents were most likely to utilize spanking as a form of punishment.

Other interesting results from the research, according to Egger, are as follows:
  • 19% of children who were in the top 10 percentile for corporal punishment exhibited symptoms of separation anxiety disorder
  • Parental stress, along with African American race, were significant factors in more frequent spankings of children
  • More frequent spanking was associated with higher incidence of conduct disorder; however, this was found only in non-African American children
  • Children with social phobia were less likely to be spanked than those without social phobia
Interestingly, investigators found that verbal dispraise was associated with significantly higher risks of developing child impairment, conduct disorder, depressive symptoms, and ADHD. These results are important, said Egger, noting that “this is the first time child impairment has become significant in this type of model.”

Harsh parenting, a restrictive disciplinary style characterized by severe punishment, was shown to be associated with child impairment and depression; further study, however, is needed to confirm this.

“These results tell us that discipline isn’t something a parent does to a child—it goes both ways,” said Egger.

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