Parents who slap their children risk them suffering long-term negative effects in later life, a leading paediatrician has warned.
Slapping is not an effective strategy to alter a child's behaviour and has "long-term deleterious effects", according to Prof Alf Nicholson of Temple Street University Children's Hospital.
Ireland introduced a “smacking ban” four years ago but Prof Nicholson, writing in the latest edition of the Irish Medical Journal, said there were no figures to indicate whether this has actually changed attitudes or behaviours.
Legislation on its own is “most unlikely” to be effective, he suggested. “Having introduced legislation back in 2015, we need to continue to change attitudes and behaviours in parents and caregivers to ensure slapping is no longer considered acceptable in this country.”
Prof Nicholson said recent evidence from US studies showed slapping – typically defined as hitting a child on the buttocks with an open hand – was linked to poor outcomes in later life including, he said, suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking and drug use. Other outcomes included increased aggression and antisocial behaviour during childhood and adolescence.
Parents who relied on corporal punishment and slapping were more likely to suffer from depression and themselves have had negative experiences in childhood, according to new evidence cited by Prof Nicholson.
The evidence was “very strong” that slapping children can cause adverse outcomes for the child and, if the child is under 18 months, it can escalate to causing physical injury, he said.
Repeated slapping has a “wholly negative effect” on the parent-child relationship. “Slapping is associated with increased aggression in both pre-school and school-aged children, an increased risk of mental health disorders and cognition problems and more oppositional and defiant behaviour in the child.
“The risk of harsh punishment is increased within families who are experiencing economic challenges, mental health issues, substance abuse or intimate partner violence. What is new and most important is the longer-term impact of slapping, with increased rates of suicide, moderate to heavy drinking and substance abuse in adulthood.”
Even harsh verbal abuse of a child aged under 13 years can result in changes on MRI brain scans, conduct issues and depressive symptoms, Prof Nicholson warned.
Parents and carers should use “healthy” forms of discipline such as positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviours, and limit-setting, he advised. “For many children, slapping merely increases aggression and anger instead of teaching responsibility and self-control.”
Parents “should always strive to redirect and set future expectations in the child. They should not use corporal punishment (including hitting and slapping) either in anger or frustration or as a punishment for poor behaviour, nor should they use verbal abuse or humiliation.”
Legislation which allowed parents to use force against their children was repealed about 20 years ago, but a defence of reasonable chastisement remained in common law for parents or child carers until 2015.
In the US, slapping is still relatively prevalent, according to Prof Nicholson, with up to 80 per cent of children having been slapped by the time they are in kindergarten.
“While, in children with behavioural issues, some short-term effectiveness of slapping has been in the past demonstrated, there is no long-term benefit and indeed the opposite is true – recent evidence suggests that corporal punishment causes a negative spiral and can and does lead to further slapping.”