Child physical punishment still common – Expert Reaction

New data from more than 700 Kiwis suggests physical discipline of children by parents dropped between 2002 and 2017.

However, the study authors say the practice remains fairly common, even after the 2007 anti-smacking law came into place, and they call for more effort to promote child-friendly parenting techniques.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the research.

Dr Melanie Woodfield, Clinical Psychologist, Health Research Council Fellow – The Werry Centre for infant, child and adolescent mental health, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland, comments:

“Most parents don’t start the day intending to strike their child. Yet the latest paper from the internationally-regarded Christchurch longitudinal study suggests physical punishment is still used by a subset of parents. Encouragingly though, the overall trend is downward.

“There’s no ‘them’ and ‘us’ here. Many parents of young children occasionally experience a fleeting thought or an urge to hit their child. Parenting young children is one of the more stressful phases of the family life cycle. Sleep deprivation, lack of partner support, child temperament or special needs, parental low mood or isolation, along with financial or relational stress, provide fertile ground for these thoughts or urges.

“Other processes, such as developmentally-inappropriate expectations of children (“he should know better by now”) or attributing malicious intent to behaviour that may actually be developmentally normal (“she spilled it on purpose”), can also factor in.

“Usually, after a thought or urge to hit a child, emotion regulation, self-control, and inhibition mean the urge passes – and the parent instead chooses another response. However, where parents are chronically stressed, overwhelmed, isolated, unsupported or have pre-existing difficulties with emotion regulation, this process of inhibition may be compromised.

“The paper reports data suggesting younger parents were more likely to use physical punishment. Younger parents may have fewer response strategies, smaller parent networks or fewer natural opportunities to reflect on how they approach their child’s challenging behaviour. In this study, they were also more likely to have experienced abuse or family violence themselves in childhood.

“There will be a proportion of parents who – rather than a heat-of-the-moment impulse – actually intend to punish their child physically. Some parents mistakenly feel that other strategies “don’t work”, or are letting the child “get away with” misbehaviour. Unfortunately this is a misunderstanding. To discipline is to teach. And a child who is fearful or under threat is not well placed to learn.

“The authors recommend tailored individual programmes for vulnerable parents, and wider population-level discussions and initiatives to promote safe and effective parenting behaviour. These programmes and initiatives are already available in New Zealand, and the challenge now is to make these more accessible to those in need, and to continue to reduce the stigma associated with asking for help.”

No conflict of interest.