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Is Spanking Child Abuse?

Published: August 31, 2016
Dear TeenHealthFX,
Is spanking child abuse?
Signed: Is Spanking Child Abuse?

Dear Is Spanking Child Abuse?,

To answer your question TeenHealthFX would like to start by giving a legal definition of child abuse and then discussing how spanking fits into this.

Defining child abuse:

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:

“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent of caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

There are many forms of child abuse, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse.

Is spanking child abuse?:

Spanking is generally not considered child abuse in that there is no physical injury caused to the child. Parents who spank a child with their hand are generally not causing any kind of bruising, broken bones or other types of physical injuries that would be considered abusive in nature. Physical abuse of a child involves action such as striking, kicking, burning, biting, hair pulling, choking, throwing, shoving, whipping or any other action that causes injury.

However, emotional abuse is one form of child abuse. If there is something related to the spankings that is causing the child significant emotional distress it is possible that it could be seen as abusive. But that it something that would need to be determined by a mental health professional or child advocate after carefully evaluating the situation.

Are there any negative effects from spanking a child?:

While physical discipline from a parent that does not injure or impair a child is not considered abuse, it is important to note that there are still some negative impacts of spanking. It is also important to remember that there are non-violent alternatives to spanking that can be just as effective, if not more effective. 

How can spanking negatively impact a child?

Spanking can be traumatic for some children. To see a parent (who is so much bigger and stronger) get to a point where they are that angry or are intentionally causing some degree of physical pain to their child can cause significant distress to some children. There have been cases of children who have been spanked (even sporadically and without any evidence of physical injury) who have reported flashbacks and even night terrors of these spanking incidents later in life because it felt so traumatic at the time.

It may seem strange to think of spanking as traumatic, but there are actually two kinds of trauma. There are discrete traumas (referred to as big “T” trauma) and chronic, insidious traumas (referred to as little “t” trauma). Big T traumas are highly identifiable and catastrophic events such as being raped or living through a natural disaster or war. Little t traumas are recurring painful situations or experiences. Examples of little t trauma could include ongoing parental criticism, childhood neglect, being bullied, living with a family member with untreated mental illness and more. Remember that any traumatic event has the quality to it that what happens to the person is out of their control. So it is possible that for some children, spanking could be experienced as a little t trauma.

A second consideration about spanking is that many parents teach their children not to hit others if they are angry at someone or if they have a problem with something someone did. But what message does it send to children when their parents use hitting when they are angry at their child or to “teach their child a lesson”? These parents are in practice teaching their children to do what they say not to do.

Finally, the use of spanking can hurt a relationship between a parent and a child in terms of the lack of respect associated with hitting. It is very important for children to have limits and rules in place and to see that there are consequences for certain behaviors and choices. However, to use hitting as a consequence is not a respectful way of dealing with someone else – no matter how old that “someone else” is.

Are there effective alternatives to spanking?:

Absolutely. There are definitely alternatives to spanking and generally these alternatives are more effective because they involve consequences being delivered in a way that is respectful, in a way where the parent is calmer and more in control, and where the child is not potentially in a position to feel frightened of their parent or caregiver. As an aside, keep in mind that having a child behave because they feel frightened of their parent may seem effective in the short-term, but it is not helpful for the child or the parent-child relationship in the long-run.

For examples on alternatives to spanking, see 9 Thing to Do Instead of Spanking and Alternatives to Spanking.  

What if nothing is working to address problematic behavior?

If a parent is having trouble finding effective ways to address problematic behaviors then it would be recommended to meet with a reputable family therapist, such as a clinical social worker or clinical psychologist. This could be helpful in the following ways:

  • To educate the parents on the developmental stages of children so they know what behaviors are age-appropriate and how to best deal with the behaviors associated with different development stages.
  • To address any underlying relationship issues contributing to acting out behaviors.
  • To assess for any underlying medical or mental health issues that might be contributing to problematic behaviors in the child.
  • To receive support and guidance in how to set appropriate limits and boundaries and in using effective, appropriate consequences.


If you live in northern New Jersey and need help finding a therapist you can call the Access Center from Atlantic Behavioral Health at 888-247-1400. Outside of this area you can log onto the US Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website for referrals in your area. You can also contact your insurance company to get a list of in-network mental health providers or check with your school social worker or psychologist to get a list of referrals in your area.


TeenHealthFX is obviously unsure why you are asking this question, so if you have any other questions or concerns about this please feel free to write to us again. Or you can speak to your school counselor or school nurse with any questions or concerns.

Signed: TeenHealthFX