Physical punishment and psychological aggression: harmful effects on children

Dear Editor,
In view of the recent incident at Canje, Berbice, in which a young child was brutally beaten by her mother, I thought it necessary to shed some light on the harmful effects of physical punishment (e.g., beating with a belt or stick, slapping with hands to the body, shoving and dragging children, pinching, pulling hair, twisting ear) on children’s well-being and early learning skills.
Physical punishment is used as a common method of disciplining children across the world. In Caribbean countries, parents fully endorse and use physical punishment at unacceptably high rates. Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have conducted several studies on the effects of physical punishment and psychological aggression on childhood development across the Caribbean and other countries. Let me share some of what we know about physical punishment among families in high-income and the low- and middle-income countries of the Caribbean. The physical harm parents can afflict on children through physical punishment is well documented, and in some cases constitute child abuse. The goal here is to focus on the effects of physical punishment on different aspects of childhood development.
Although a fair number of adults in Guyana vouch that physical punishment at home and school steered them toward a good path in life, research findings show that physical harshness is quite harmful to children’s development. Here is what we know about the effects of physical punishment. From an analysis of 88 studies conducted in high-income countries, physical punishment was linked to:
• Childhood aggression
• Antisocial behaviour and social adjustment difficulties
• Delinquency
• Lower vocabulary, literacy, and cognitive stimulation scores (intellectual functioning)
• Lower internalisation of moral standards
• Poor mental health outcomes in general
Our studies on physical punishment in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, and those by other social scientists in Jamaica, also demonstrate similar harmful effects of physical punishment on childhood development. In a national study of 1,500 families from African Caribbean, Indo- Caribbean, and Mixed-ethnic Caribbean backgrounds across Trinidad and Tobago, physical punishment was directly linked to behavioural problems in children. Likewise, there was a direct negative link between the harshness of physical punishment and preschool-age children’s prosocial behaviours (e.g., helping, cooperating, and sharing) in Indo-Guyanese families in the Corentyne area. That is, the harsher the physical punishment, the less likely children were to engage in sharing, helping, and cooperating with others, behaviours deemed essential for the development of social skills and behavioural adjustment. In a subsequent study, physical punishment had a negative effect on early literacy skills, such as reading words, counting/naming, and recognising symbols in Guyanese children from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
In related work, we assessed the impact of physical punishment and psychological aggression in 25 African countries. Across countries, physical punishment and psychological aggression were associated with more behavioural difficulties, such as biting, hitting, and kicking other children and adults. At the same time, parental use of explanations and redirection was positively linked to children’s early literacy skills.
The consensus around the world is that physical punishment is harmful to children’s psychological well-being and cognitive functioning. Avoid using it! Use explanations and reasoning, redirect the child to some other activity, or model appropriate behaviour for the child. By the way, psychological aggression, which involves berating/demeaning, belittling, and calling names (e.g., stupid, stubborn), has similar harmful effects as physical punishment on children’s psychological well-being and cognitive functioning.
I strongly recommend that physical punishment be banned in the home and school in Guyana. There is good evidence that there is less aggression in schools in countries that have banned the use of physical punishment in the home and school, compared to those that have not. As I noted in a recent blog ( ) for the University of Cambridge, it is rather difficult to teach children appropriate social behaviours and to show moral concern for others when we hit and humiliate them.

Jaipaul L Roopnarine