A new study looks at whether parents who use spanking as a form of discipline are actually creating a vicious cycle of more spankings and more bad behavior in their kids.

Researchers wanted to resolve the age-old question of which comes first, the "chicken or the egg" as it relates to the issue of physical discipline in childhood. Do spankings promote aggression in children, or do naturally aggressive children simply receive more spankings as parents try to control their behavior?

And the answer is yes to both questions according to Michael MacKenzie, an associate professor at the Columbia University School od Social Work in New York City.

Researchers found that during the first 10 years of a child's life (when most spankings occur), spankings only lead to future misbehavior – and a child's misbehavior leads to future spankings.

"You can think of it as an escalating arms race, where the parent gets more coercive and the child gets more aggressive, and they get locked into this cycle," MacKenzie said. "These processes can get started really early, and when they do there's a lot of continuity over time."

The findings are based on almost 1,900 families from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. That's a decade-old research project conducted by researchers at Columbia and Princeton universities involving children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000.

Families in the study took part in assessments shortly after giving birth and when the children were approximately 1, 3, 5 and 9 years old. These assessments included questions about whether the children received spankings and the extent to which the children behaved aggressively, broke rules or acted surly or antagonistic.

About 28 percent of mothers reported spanking their children during their first year of life, increasing to 57 percent at age 3 and then hovering around 53 percent at age 5 and 49 percent at age 9.

But researchers also found that at each age, children who exhibited more behavioral problems went on to experience more spanking at a later age, indicating that the more difficult children might prompt increasing levels of punishment from their parents.

"Some children are eliciting higher levels of physical discipline, and high levels of physical discipline are in turn associated with later higher levels of parental aggression," MacKenzie said.

Essentially the battle becomes a tit-for-tat scenario and no one gets what they want.

While the study shows that spanking and misbehavior tend to feed each other, the investigators found that spanking during the first year of life is the catalyst that starts the cycle.

Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental & behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, N.Y., says that non-physical forms of punishment for toddlers who act out have a more positive effect on children. Parents who stick with this form of discipline are more likely to have a well-behaved child at ages 3,5 and 9.

"During the early toddler years, parents probably need to get more counseling or advice on strategies for managing children's behavior without resorting to spanking," Adesman said.

No one denies that it can be difficult to resist the urge to spank particularly for young, stressed and overwhelmed parents. 

"Spanking gives very immediate feedback, because children will stop doing what they were doing, but it's not giving children the ability to regulate themselves over time," he noted.

"But parenting is not an easy thing, and challenging kids make the job even tougher," MacKenzie explained. "We need to give these parents the support they need to do as well as they'd like by their children."

In future posts, we'll look at what experts suggest for age appropriate non-physical discipline and how and why they work.

The findings for this study were published in the March 25th online issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Source: Dennis Thompson, http://news.health.com/2014/03/26/spanking-triggers-vicious-cycle-study-finds/

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