Physical Punishment (Children)

If an adult hits another adult because they don’t approve of how they’re behaving, it’s described as physical assault. But when a parent takes the same action against their child, we’re more likely to describe it as ‘smacking’.

By reframing the language used to talk about this issue, we can better reflect the negative impact that physical punishment has on children. In doing so, we can also highlight the urgent need for a change in the law in England and Northern Ireland, where parents can still use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ to justify physically punishing their child.

Highlighting the impact on children’s wellbeing

Using euphemistic terms like ‘smacking’ risks minimising the harm caused to children.

Studies show that physical punishment can have harmful effects even if a child experiences it in the context of a warm, loving family background. It affects a child’s mental and emotional health, and is particularly associated with:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • an increase in aggression
  • an increase in antisocial behaviour.

The psychological effects of physical punishment can extend into adulthood. Adults who had been physically punished as children had an increased risk of:

  • suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • moderate to heavy drinking
  • drug use.

Current disparity between children’s and adults’ protection in law

In England and Northern Ireland the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ means that children are the only group of people who are not fully protected from physical assault.

Talking about ‘smacking’ masks the ongoing disparity in England and Northern Ireland between a child’s and adult’s protection in law from assault. Calling for a ‘ban’ does not recognise that removing the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence would not constitute a proactive ban or the creation of a new offence. Rather, it would ensure that the law of assault applies equally to children and adults.

Talking about ‘equal protection from physical assault’ underlines the fact that the child’s human right to protection against physical violence, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), is being infringed.

There is no justification for inflicting pain on a child or young person as a parent (or any other adult carer). Any form of physical punishment that leaves a mark on a child or young person is considered an assault and is illegal under the Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 (S47 of Offences Against the Person Act 1861) and can result in a conviction and custodial sentence of up to 5 years.  It is also against the UN Convention of the Rights of a Child (Article 19).

Can a school, nursery or person providing child care smack my child?

It is illegal for teachers, nursery workers and child care workers to smack another person’s child. If a person is employed privately by a parent, such as a babysitter or nanny, the parent may give permission for that person to smack their child as long as it is reasonable and does not amount to an offence.

Behaviour Management and Discipline Strategies

We know that children and young people need:

  • love, affection and warmth;
  • talking, listening and positive praise;
  • guidance and understanding;

But we also know that they can behave in negative ways from time to time and need:

  • a safe and structured environment;
  • limits and boundaries; and
  • consistency and consequences.

There are some general positive discipline strategies which are alternatives to physically punishing a child or young person. These can include:

  • ignoring behaviour that you do not want to see (unless of course there is a safety reason) so a child doesn’t get rewarded with your attention;
  • having clear and consistent rules and boundaries, with consequences if they are broken which are stuck to;
  • rewarding positive behaviour with your attention, praise, a hug and small treats; and
  • being assertive and using statements such as “I feel really disappointed when you ….”.

Being a good example to your child is important. If you are violent either to them or another adult, this sends a message that this behaviour is OK and they are more likely to be violent themselves.  If you feel that you may lose your temper, don’t lash out but walk away, deep breathe and count up to 10.  Give yourself time to calm down and think about how else to tackle the negative behaviour that your child may be demonstrating.  If this happens frequently, or you are concerned,  seek advice and support from your GP or Health Visitor.

Parenting Programmes

There are a range of parenting programmes that can help parents with guidance, support and practical solutions to dealing with behavioural issues and other parenting issues.

The Incredible Years Parenting Programme, for parents of children from the age of 3 to 12 years, use limit setting and ignoring behaviours techniques, time out to calm down, and natural and logical consequences.

Mellow Parenting places an emphasis on attachment theory that suggests our earliest relationships provide a model for later relationship.  The approaches focus on spotting trouble, so being identify triggers and understanding behaviour in order to anticipate and avoid difficulties; changing your child’s behaviour through the role of attention in reinforcing behaviour e.g. praise, play rewards; stopping behaviour you don’t want, such as temper tantrums, by using withdrawal of attention, etc.

How to seek help, advice and guidance

  • Family Centres
  • Early Help
  • NHS Choices provides information on-line on dealing with child behaviour problems.
  • The charity, Family Lives, provides information and advice on coping with behaviour according across different ages and stages on their website and via a Helpline – 0808 800 2222