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Probing long-term effects of spanking

Link to higher risk of health problems: study

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Prof. Tracie Afifi is against spanking.

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Prof. Tracie Afifi is against spanking. Photo Store

Be warned: Hitting your child can actually hurt them well into adulthood.

University of Manitoba community science Prof. Tracie Afifi has uncovered a link between spanking or hitting children and the increased potential for serious health problems in the coming years. She said harsh physical punishment administered to kids -- acts of pushing, grabbing, slapping and hitting -- can lead to a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, arthritis and obesity.

More than 35,000 people in the United States participated in the research, with adults reporting conditions in the homes where they grew up, and their current health state. Afifi said the higher risk came in at a 1.3 per cent increase over the group that didn't report physical punishment.

Afifi reminds people the findings are only increased likelihoods and associations -- not every child who is subjected to physical punishment will be susceptible to health problems as a result. She said the findings were based on research showing infants experiencing regular physical punishment register higher hormonal reactions to stress.

'We recommend that physical punishment not be used on children of any age'

"That was our theory driving the study," Afifi said Wednesday, "but we wanted to look at things that were less severe, things that many people wouldn't consider physical abuse."

So what's the link between hitting your child and the increased potential for health issues?

Afifi said the effects of physical punishment have shown to amp up the levels of stress in children to the point where they may experience higher heart rate and higher blood pressure, numerous sleep irregularities, and even be subject to cognitive behavioural issues.

Turn those factors into a problem of confidence in the child, and living with the stress over time only increases the chances for health problems.

Think of a time you've experienced an increase in stress in your daily life: the solution to help ease that burden bump maybe came through a cigarette, a couple of glasses of wine during non-social situations, or even a trip to the local fast-food restaurant or ice cream stand for a quick shot of comfort food.

Same thing applies here, Afifi says.

"It's not a causal relationship, it's an association," she said. "We did rigorous statistical models -- our models were quite strict and stringent -- and we still were finding these effects."

Not surprisingly, Afifi is not a fan of Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, the wording that legally allows parents, teachers and caregivers to discipline their children (older than two, under the age of 13) through "reasonable force" but not with a belt or another makeshift weapon (blows to the head and face are not allowed either).

She points to the growing stacks of literature that favour a non-physical, positive reinforcement model of authority with children. Add the potential negative health concerns found via her research, and she wonders why Canada is still dragging its collective knuckles in the 21st century on the matter.

"We recommend that physical punishment not be used on children of any age," Afifi said. "Children still need discipline -- physical punishment is not the same as discipline. A lot of people get that confused."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Should parents be banned from spanking their kids? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2013 A5

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Updated on Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 6:51 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds question for discussion, adds sidebar

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