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Spanking & Mental Illness

The other day, a study came out about childhood spanking and its connection to adult mental illness; “Spanking Kids Might Lead to Adult Mental Illness” outlines what the information said.

“Childhood punishments such as spanking, slapping, and hitting – even in the absence of full-scale maltreatment – are associated with an increased risk of mental disorders in adulthood, researchers reported. 

“Adults who reported such punishments in their childhood had a greater risk of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse dependence, and several personality disorders, according to Tracie Afifi, PhD, of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and colleagues.”

I fit this study to a tee.

I wouldn’t say I was abused, but I was smacked, hit and slapped throughout my childhood and early teen years. Dad’s military belt, hairbrushes, wooden spoons and fly swatters were all too familiar on my butt and legs.

So, 40 years later, as I climb my way out of the worst depression of my life, I can’t help but wonder just how much of this bipolar disorder was inherently going to show up in my life and how much came from being hurt and humiliated as a kid.

When I had Tristan (who’s 30 this year), I began parenting the way I learned (I was going to say taught, but it certainly wasn’t a conscious teaching or learning), smacking the poor child on his bottom and hands. Then, when I had Meghann 19 months later, I’d begun learning a new way to parent… a gentler way. Through the books at the La Leche League meetings, I learned I didn’t have to hit to get a child that would “behave.” It took a lot of unlearning and a lot of conscious not hitting, but I did a damn good job of not hurting my kids. Now, I’m sure if you asked them, they’d have great examples of mom’s misbehavior as a Good Mommy… I certainly yelled a lot more than I ever should have. (If I had it to do over, I would have meditated, taught the kids to meditate and I would have chilled out about the small stuff. I freaked out about far too many things and do apologize to the kids for my missteps.)

One of the major ways I realized my need to change was in remembering what it felt like to be hit as a kid. It was humiliating. In my new thinking, I couldn’t come up with a reason to make the children I loved more than anything in the world feel that horrible feeling of humiliation. That was the driving force of my transformation as a parent.

So, when I see studies like these, I am going to be vocal in their information. I’m almost as bad as Intactivists when it comes to hitting children.

Now, I’ve heard the arguments about discipline, not hitting a child in anger (which is absurd to me) and Look-How-Fine-I-Turned-Out, but they ring hollow for me. I beg people who were hit and who hit to tap into that child inside and see… no, feel… what it felt like to be hit. Not try and justify it with, “It was the only way I would listen,” or “That’s the way we do it in our family,” but to feel the feeling a child feels when he or she is hit. Why would you inflict that horrible feeling on a child you supposedly love more than life itself? It makes zero sense.

I’m glad this study came out. I’m glad when pieces of the puzzle are unwrapped every once in awhile so we can talk about this issue. “Discipline” isn’t a topic discussed as often as some others, so I’m glad to see this being aired right now.

If you hit, spank, slap, give the silent treatment or have discovered the various ways to manipulate children’s behavior, I pray you’ll stop and think today about how you 1) want to care for your children in the most loving way possible 2) want your children to be as adults. If there is a propensity for mental illness in your family, perhaps it’s the hitting that shoves the depression over the edge, dooming them for a life of difficulties through mental illness. Also, how do you want to be remembered when your kids tell stories about you? Do you want them telling a therapist how you mistreated them? Telling your grandkids how you shoved them in a cold shower with their clothes on? Is this the legacy you want to impart? I sincerely hope not.

I wasn’t a perfect parent and have written about when I’ve terribly failed… the one time I was hitting Meghann and Zack came and pulled me off of her… I had totally lost control and still remember it to this day. The time I went crazy because Meghann cut her own hair; poor Meghann… I’m sure she’s still traumatized by that incident. Even with my missteps, I’m so thankful I unlearned the horrible behaviors I was taught. My kids got a lot less abuse than they would have had I not stumbled on La Leche League and Bradley classes.

One more note. While I’ve had a ton of therapy, much of it discussing the hurt and humiliation as a child, I have come to a place of peace with my mom and dad, knowing they did the best they could with the information they had at the time. I was hit far less than my mom was and her parents were hit less than their parents, so at least the abuse was lessening over the generations. Perhaps Gabriella won’t ever have to endure a smack; one can only hope! Mental illness is rampant in my family, as rampant as the hitting, so it’s impossible to say if one would have been illuminated without the other. I can say that, so far, my own kids have bypassed the trips to the psychiatrists and therapists, so anecdotally, we’re spot on for staving off the mental illness. And that alone is cause for celebration.

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Reader Comments (6)

I don't support spanking for discipline. I am a recovering spanker, having learned the hard way that it doesn't work. But please, please, please remember that this study only shows that spanking and later mental illness are correlated, not that spanking causes later mental illness. In some cases like your own, it may seem to be proven, but it's just as likely that your depression was caused by another factor, such as a genetic predisposition to depression. I'm so tired of studies like this being worded so that everyone propogates a lie until the truth is forgotten.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAubrey

Barb I have been reading your blog for years & this post has resonated with me so strongly. I too was hit as a child. Hit in that 'oh you know just spanked' way. Now I have a baby & I know I will never hit her. The arguments for hitting another person ring hollow with me too. If i hit my husband i'd be arrested - but I can hit my child? It's wrong.

I wish you nothing but the best & I hope you are able to recover from this depression. It is a cruel illness which you do not deserve because i think you are a gentle soul

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Thanks for your blog and for sharing your insight. I just would like to point out that people who do get treatment aren't necessarily sicker than those who don't. Maybe they are just more concerned about their own mental health, or they are braver. Just saying, if your kid(s) do decide to visit a psychiatrist, don't blame yourself, but be proud that they look out for themselves

July 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuth

I said it on Facebook and I'll say it again: I was NOT hit as a child and yet I have bipolar disorder. I have to believe genetics plays a stronger role than anything else, given my family tree (lots of depression). Therefore, I have to wonder if there aren't a lot of undiagnosed or underdiagnosed parents out there, smacking their children because they were smacked because they were smacked ad infinitum, and their children wind up with the same anxiety/depression/whatever that fueled mom's/dad's/grandma's behavior. Correlation yes, causation no.

July 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia

Would love to see a list of the books that supported more positive parenting!

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterC

It may be possible that Childhood punishments can cause adulthood mental illness.

December 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTrivedi Effect

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