Abuse in Relationships: Children Who Are Spanked Grow Up To Hit Their Adult Partners

A new study found a correlation between children who are hit or spanked as a form of punishment and an increased likeliness of physically abusing romantic partners in adulthood. Although the research could not prove that one directly caused the other, it serves as yet another piece of data to suggest that corporal punishment could do more harm than good.

For the research published Tuesday in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch followed 758 high school students from all over Texas. They interviewed the students when the teens were in the 9th and 10th grade and followed up when the students were between 19 and 20 years old. The focus of the interviews were to better understand the students’ own history of corporal punishment and physical violence in romantic dating. Of the 758 young adults recruited for the study, 61 percent were female.

Related: Long-term effects of spanking

In total,19 percent of the young volunteers involved in the study reported that they had been physically abusive to a partner during a dating relationship and 68 percent of the volunteers reported to experiencing corporal punishment as children. There was a positive relationship between corporal punishment and physical violence during a romantic relationship.

12_05_crying The debate continues on whether parents should or should not subject their children to corporal punishment. ABDO HYDER/AFP/Getty Images

Lead study researcher Jeff Temple PhD, an associate professor at the University of Texas who specializes in dating violence, told Newsweek that one unit increase in corporal punished was associated with a 29 percent increase in perpetrating dating violence. These results remained even when the team accounted for the number of children who experienced child abuse, which is described as any form of punishment that is inappropriate or causes series injury. 

Related: Some kids are never spanked-do they turn out better?

According to Temple, this research is just another study to show the negative impacts of corporal punishment.

“My job is not to tell parents what to do, but to rather provide evidence to show that this [corporal punishment] is potentially harmful,” Temple explained.

Many studies have previously highlighted potential harmful fallout from corporal abuse. For example, although the fear of being hit can temporarily prevent a child from doing a problematic behavior, in the long run it may have psychological consequences. A 2012 study published online by the Canadian American Association showed that children who were physically abused were more likely to hit their peers, and being hit as a child was an accurate predictor of antisocial and aggressive behavior later in life.

Ronald Jay Werner-Wilson PhD, chair of the family sciences department at the University of Kentucky, who was not affiliated with this research, told Newsweek that although the findings that children who are hit are more likely to hit others may seem obvious, it’s still important to have empirical evidence to show this.

“As a child, you learn from your parents how to operate in the world,” said Werner-Wilson. “We justify spanking, but there is no other relationship in the world that it would be okay to hit someone, even if they did something wrong.”

Werner-Wilson emphasized that research shows not all corporal punishment is negative, and if it is done under certain parameters, such as being conducted soon after the punishable act and being done without a strong emotional reaction from the parent, the results can be positive.

“However, rarely does it occur in those parameters,” said Werner-Wilson.

Temple hopes his research in identifying possible risk factors for domestic abuse may be applied to develop better intervention for children subjected to corporal punishment as they age.

“It’s difficult to change our structure, our culture, and parents’ behavior, but even with all that if we can affect kids through prevention programs than that would certainly be a step in the right direction,” added Temple.

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