Child abuse and neglect are among adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are commonly included in ACEs research. Also, included in the ACEs research are other types of household dysfunction or challenges such as parental divorce or substance use. A large ACEs literature exists that shows that ACEs are related to an increased likelihood of many poor health and social outcomes. Although these studies have included physical abuse defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting so hard to leave marks or cause injury, to date, spanking has not been included as an ACE. This is important since spanking is a common form of discipline and can be a stressful childhood event. As well, spanking is known to be related to poor health, social, behavioural, and development outcomes.
We conducted our study because was we wanted to know if spanking should be considered an ACE. To do this we tested if spanking was statistically similar to physical and emotional abuse (i.e., empirically measuring a similar construct). We then wanted to know if spanking had similar relationships as physical and emotional abuse with poor adult mental health. Finally, we wanted to know if including spanking added to our understanding of poor adult mental health outcome over and above what we would know from only examining physical and emotional abuse.
What we found using the same original data as the landmark Felitti et al. 1998 study was that spanking was statistically similar to physical and emotional abuse. We also found that spanking was associated with an increased likelihood of suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking, and use of street drugs in adulthood. Finally, these relationships remained significant after adjusting for the experiences of physical and emotional abuse, meaning including spanking while adjusting for the effects of abuse improved our understanding of ACEs.
Our study indicates that spanking is similar to other abuse ACEs and adds to our understanding of mental health problems over and above what we already know from only including abuse. Spanking is an ACE. This means that we need to include spanking in ACE research, prevention efforts, and when wanting to understand one’s own ACEs. This also highlights the importance of preventing not just child abuse and neglect, but also harsh parenting before it occurs.
For access to the complete study please use the following link.