Corporal punishment causes injuries and physical impairments | Sunday Observer

Corporal punishment causes injuries and physical impairments

28 November, 2021

Not a day goes by when newspapers and other social media outfits carry reports on children being subjected to some form of physical violence of which the most widespread is corporal punishment. This form of abuse tragically has no age barriers starting with toddlers barely out of their nappies to older children and even adolescents.

Scars from this continuous child battering by alcoholic fathers, overworked mothers, ambitious parents who want their child to perform well academically, are deep. Their negative impacts could result in preventing optimal growth and development, affect their learning capabilities and cause other impediments such as stuttering and stammering and even lead to suicidal thoughts according to psychologists.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Colombo South Teaching Hospital Dr Yasodha Rohanachandra who has experience in dealing with children and adolescents who have been at the receiving end of the stick often for no fault of theirs.


Q: Corporal punishment has recently been very much in the news, especially following the death of a 16-year-old boy, after being physically punished by his father for not engaging in studies. A15-year-old schoolgirl committed suicide because she did not pass her Advanced Level examination. How do you define corporal punishment?

A: Corporal punishment is the most widespread form of violence against children. Corporal punishment is the intentional use of physical force to cause bodily pain or discomfort as a penalty for unacceptable behaviour. Corporal punishment includes any action that produces discomfort, such as spanking, hitting, slapping, pinching, ear pulling, jabbing, shoving, or choking. It is the most widespread form of violence against children.

Q: Is there a link between physical punishment and physical abuse?

A: Several worldwide studies have found physical punishment to be closely associated with physical abuse. Research has shown that the intent to discipline or punish is a common precursor in many child homicide cases. Many children worldwide sustain injuries and physical impairments as a direct cause of corporal punishment. A major Canadian study found that nearly three quarters (74 percent) of all cases of “substantiated physical abuse” were cases of physical punishment.

Physical punishment, however, “mild” and “light”, carries an inbuilt risk of escalation. The effectiveness of physical punishment in controlling children’s behaviour decreases over time, encouraging the punisher to increase the intensity of the punishment, resulting in physical abuse. Corporal punishment is shown to improve immediate compliance, but does not lead to long term compliance. That means that if you physically punish a child, it will help stop whatever the behaviour that he is engaging in at that time, but it will not stop him from engaging in similar behaviour in the future.

Q: What are the negative psychological consequences of physical punishment?

A: A study in 2016, which analysed findings of studies several found physical punishment to be associated with numerous negative psychological consequences.

Physical punishment was shown to be associated with poor parent-child relationships, lower self-esteem, lower cognitive ability and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and hopelessness in children. Physical punishment was also associated with poor problem-solving skills and higher aggression in children. The negative psychological impact of physical punishment was found to be similar to the psychological impact of physical abuse.

Q: What are the consequences on the developing brain of the child?

A: Research suggests that corporal punishment can have a negative impact on children’s cognitive development due to the effect of early experiences of fear and stress on the developing brain. Studies have found associations between corporal punishment and lower intelligence scores, poor cognitive abilities and poor school marks. Some of these effects have shown to be lifelong, with some studies finding children who experienced corporal punishment being less likely to graduate from college and to have high status and highly paid jobs.

Q: Is it true that a physically punished child is likely to do the same to his children when he grows up?

A: Yes. Studies have shown that persons who have been physically punished as children were more likely to engage in gender-based violence as adults and also more likely to physically abuse their children.

Q: Is physical punishment meted to a stubborn child effective?

A: If we take a scenario where a parent physically punishes a child, it is usually when there is a difference of opinion between the child and the parent. That is, the parent wants the child to have a certain behaviour, which the child does not want to do. The parent, then, resolves to physical aggression to resolve this difference of opinion. This teaches the child that physical aggression is the best method to resolve interpersonal conflict. This will lead the child to use physical aggression to solve problems with his peers, resulting in increased aggressive behaviour and poor problem-solving skills.  Physical punishment promotes fear-induced discipline.

That is, the child learns to do the right thing due to the fear of being punished. When there is no punishment, the child will not do the right thing. This can be seen among adults in our society. For example, if there is a police officer on the road, people will obey road rules, due to the fear of receiving a fine. If there is no policeman, people do not follow road rules as there is no chance of punishment. This is not the sort of discipline we should aim for our children. We should aim for self-discipline, where the child does the right thing irrespective of whether there is a punishment or not. Physical punishment does not lead to this kind of self-discipline.

Q: There are many laws to protect children from corporal punishment passed by the UN. Some of them have been incorporated in our Constitution. Jog our memories on some of the most important ones.

A: The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) advocates to protect children from ‘all forms of physical and mental violence, injury or abuse’. Although this does not specifically include the word “physical punishment”, the subsequent CRC committee opinions have clarified that “the lack of explicit language against corporal punishment ‘cannot be used to justify such practices”. 

With regard to Sri Lanka, section 308 A of the Penal code states that “whoever having the custody of a child below 18 years, willfully assaults, ill treats, neglects or abandons a child that is likely to cause suffering or injury to health (physical or mental) of the child, commits an offence of cruelty to children, which can be punished with imprisonment and is also liable to fine”. Again, this does not explicitly state corporal punishment, but includes physical punishment that causes physical or psychological harm to the child.

Q: With all these laws, why is physical punishment still a popular method of punishment in Sri Lanka?

A: Corporal punishment has been an accepted method of punishment in the past. Many believe that as they did not suffer any psychological consequences as a result of such punishment, their children will not be psychologically affected by it as well. What we must remember is that every person is different. Just because one did not suffer any psychological impact from physical punishment does not mean that others won’t.

For example, just because the majority of people who get infected with coronavirus do not get complications, does not mean that coronavirus infection is not a deadly disease. Similarly, just because some do not develop psychological consequences as a result of physical punishment, that does not mean that others will not, or that physical punishment is harmless. The other reason is that parents are not aware of alternative methods of discipline other than physical punishment.

Q: Can you suggest any alternative to replace physical punishment?

A: Setting age-appropriate limits and boundaries and having consequences for breaking these boundaries are important from childhood. It is important for all adults in the household to enforce these boundaries. We often find that different adults in the household react differently when the child misbehaves, which can cause confusion in the child. Ignoring bad behaviour and giving rewards for good behaviour can motivate the child to continue behaving well. Most of all, it is important for parents to “act” rather than “react” in response to a child’s misbehaviour.

Q: Do you have a message to parents, teachers and guardians on corporal punishment?

A: My take home message is that physical punishment does not promote self-discipline and is associated with many long-term harmful consequences.

There are many alternative disciplining strategies that can be used instead of corporal punishment. Parent should try to discuss a problem that is troubling their child and help him,/her solve it in an open and friendly manner rather than resorting to physical punishment.

If you have taken too many drinks, stay away from the child. If you are in a bad mood, wait till your temper cools.