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APA Adopts Physical Discipline Resolution

IMPACT OF PHYSICAL DISCIPLINE OF CHILDREN MAY BE HARMFUL IN THE LONG TERM, ACCORDING TO APA RESOLUTION

Association adopts policy calling for use of alternatives that foster supportive family environment

WASHINGTON - Scientific evidence demonstrates that physical discipline of children by parents and other caregivers can harm children's mental health and possibly increase their propensity toward aggressive behavior, according to a resolution adopted by the American Psychological Association. Instead, alternative forms of discipline that are associated with more positive outcomes for children - such as reasoning, time out, taking away privileges, warnings and ignoring misbehavior - are recommended. 

"Research indicates that physical discipline is not effective in achieving parents' long-term goals of decreasing aggressive and defiant behavior in children or of promoting regulated and socially competent behavior in children," states the Resolution on Physical Discipline of Children By parents. "The research on the adverse outcomes associated with physical discipline indicates that any perceived short-term benefits of physical discipline do not outweigh the detriments of this form of discipline."

The resolution notes that children learn from the behavior modeled by their parents, "and therefore physical discipline may teach undesirable conflict resolution practices," according to research. There is also evidence that physical discipline by caregivers can escalate into physical abuse.

The resolution was adopted by APA's governing Council of Representatives at its meeting Feb. 15. The resolution was drafted by APA's Committee on Children, Youth and Families, whose members relied on an extensive review of the scientific literature. It was reviewed by relevant APA boards and committees before being put to a council vote.

The resolution commits APA to raise public awareness and increase education surrounding the impact of physical discipline on children and the effectiveness of other methods. It calls on APA to promote culturally responsive training and continuing education regarding alternative discipline strategies and their effectiveness. And it directs APA to support funding for research in the United States and other countries on the factors that underlie why some parents support and rely on physical discipline.

"The use of physical punishment on children has been declining in the United States over the past 50 years," said APA President Rosie Phillips Davis, PhD. "We hope that this resolution will make more parents and caregivers aware that other forms of discipline are effective and even more likely to result in the behaviors they want to see in their children."

The resolution was accompanied by a supporting statement citing extensive research into the use and outcomes of physical punishment on children.

"Despite beliefs that physical discipline is an effective way to eliminate undesirable child behavior or to induce child compliance with parents' requests, there is no consistent scientific evidence that physical discipline makes children more or less likely to cease undesirable behavior or engage in desirable behavior in the short term," according to the supporting statement. "Research instead suggests that physical discipline is not better than other discipline methods, nor does it serve to enhance the positive outcomes parents seek, such as conscience development or positive behavior and affect."

Rather, using physical discipline predicts increases in children's behavior problems, even after controlling for race, gender and family socioeconomic status, the supporting statement says.  While cultural and religious differences in attitudes toward and beliefs about physical discipline may contribute to its use, the harmful outcomes are the same, according to the research.

Positive parenting skills - such a modeling orderly, predictable behavior, respectful communication and collaborative conflict resolution - "are more likely to yield desirable behaviors and to foster a more positive and supportive family environment," according to the supporting statement.

The supporting statement noted the limitation surrounding research into physical discipline, noting that it is unethical "to randomly assign children to a condition in which they do or do not receive physical discipline from the moment they are born." However, recent work has used strong research designs using multiple methods and has examined diverse samples. "Thus, findings from these methodologically rigorous studies show that parental physical discipline use can be detrimental, and conversely that other forms of discipline promote positive child behavior over time," it says.

With this resolution, APA joins numerous professional and public health organizations in recommending that parents avoid using physical discipline, including: the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, and National Foster Parent Association. In addition, international agreement about the ineffectiveness of physical discipline has resulted in many countries banning the practice in all settings.


The American Psychological Association, In Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.