A piece of news that might have slipped under the radar for some in this challenging year is that Scotland became the 60th country in the world to make it illegal to physically punish a child under the age of 16. The law came into force as a result of an evidence review conducted by a team of researchers at UCL including Child of our Time editor Yvonne Kelly. Now further evidence to support that change in the law has been published by a team investigating how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are used by health practitioners, policy makers and academics to investigate the long term effects of stressful experiences faced in childhood. Rebecca Lacey and colleagues outline their new findings.
2020 is a year that will be remembered largely for a pandemic that turned many people’s lives upside down. One aspect of the pandemic that was much talked about was the stresses and strains placed on couples and families and fears over how those additional pressures might lead to incidences of domestic violence particularly towards women and children. Never a more important time then to ensure that those women and children are protected in law.
That’s exactly what has happened in Scotland where a new law means that the previous so-called “justifiable assault” defence is no longer available to parents and carers who smack or hit their children for whatever reason. A similar bill is passing through the legislative process in Wales and there is growing pressure for England and Northern Ireland to follow suit and introduce an outright ban.
Our study is part of a wider project looking at how ACEs and ACE scores are used by researchers and health practitioners to predict the long term health impacts of the bad things that sometimes happen to children while they are young. These include, amongst others, child maltreatment and abuse, parental conflict and separation, and parental psychiatric disorders.
Impacts on behaviour
We used three different approaches to look at when and how these events occur and combine to affect a child’s mental health and specifically how that might present itself through their behaviour, as they grow into adolescents. In this blog we delve into two of those approaches.
We used the Millennium Cohort Study, which, through interviews mainly with mothers, but later with children themselves, has tracked the lives of around 20,000 children born around the Millennium. Using this rich data we could investigate how children who had faced one or more challenges by the age of 3 were affected later on compared with those who experienced a childhood with fewer or no reported difficulties.
One of the experiences we were particularly interested to look at was the long-lasting effects of being smacked as a young child on their behaviour up to and including the age of 14. Here we could examine information collected from the child’s mother when they turned 3 years old.
Mums were asked about ‘harsh parenting’ when their child was naughty: for example, how often they ignored or shouted at them, sent them to their room, took away treats or bribed them. They were also asked how often they smacked their child for being naughty – from never to daily.
We found that two thirds of the children had experienced one ACE or more by the age of 3. Nearly one in five experienced two ACEs and one in six experienced 3 or more. The most common ACEs were parental depression, harsh parenting, physical punishment, use of force between parents, and parental alcohol misuse. Boys were slightly more likely than girls to be parented harshly and smacked and also more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour.
The children’s “internalizing behaviour” – which covers things such as playing alone, being nervous in new situations or lacking confidence, worrying, being down-hearted or tearful – increased as the children got older from 3 to 14 and the more bad things they experienced, the more problems they exhibited. We were particularly struck by how strong the links were between ACEs scores reported at age 3 and internalising behaviour at age 14.
Interestingly and importantly we saw ‘externalizing behaviour’ problems such as temper tantrums, fighting, lying, being easily distracted or hyperactive decrease up to the age of 11 but then increase by age 14. Again, the more bad experiences reported, the more behaviour problems observed.
There was also a clear link between prosocial behaviour and ACEs – the more bad things experienced by a child the less instances of positive things such as being helpful and co-operative.
When we separated out the ACEs to see how they linked with behaviour issues, children whose parents were separated, depressed, took drugs, parented harshly or smacked them experienced more internalising behaviours by the age of 3.
Where a child was smacked at the age of 3 they exhibited heightened problems and this remained the case throughout their childhood and into their teens.
The impact of ACEs on externalising behaviour in many cases decreased over time, suggesting a stronger association when they are very young. But this was not the case for harsh parenting and smacking where the effects were longer lasting. Harsh parenting and smacking were also linked with lower scores for positive prosocial behaviour across the board.
It likely comes as no surprise that those children who have no or few adverse experiences as young children fare best of all and that the more bad things children experience early on the more behaviour problems they exhibit. This research, however, shows just how long those problems can persist at what is such an important and formative part of a young person’s life.
Our findings around the stark links between harsh parenting and physical punishment and poor mental health through childhood and into adolescence is really important and adds further weight to moves in Scotland and elsewhere to provide children with legal protection against smacking.
It is time for those who continue to argue that smacking children is ok to take notice of this well-established and growing body of research and accept that the evidence around the long term negative effects of harsh parenting and physical punishment on children’s health and happiness is now irrefutable.
If these arguments are not enough to hold sway, and we believe they should be, it has also been estimated that going forward ACEs will cost Europe and North America $581 billion and $748 billion respectively.
Parents, practitioners and policymakers alike all have a role in making this the time where we stop hitting children. It will be good for us all.
Adverse childhood experiences and trajectories of internalizing, externalizing, and prosocial behaviors from childhood to adolescence is research by Leonardo Bevilacqua, Yvonne Kelly, Anja Heilmann, Naomi Priest and Rebecca Lacey and is published in the journal, Child Abuse & Neglect.