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Why Spanking is an ACE


Child abuse and neglect are among adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are commonly included in ACEs research. Also, included in the ACEs research are other types of household dysfunction or challenges such as parental divorce or substance use. A large ACEs literature exists that shows that ACEs are related to an increased likelihood of many poor health and social outcomes. Although these studies have included physical abuse defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting so hard to leave marks or cause injury, to date, spanking has not been included as an ACE. This is important since spanking is a common form of discipline and can be a stressful childhood event. As well, spanking is known to be related to poor health, social, behavioural, and development outcomes.


We conducted our study because was we wanted to know if spanking should be considered an ACE. To do this we tested if spanking was statistically similar to physical and emotional abuse (i.e., empirically measuring a similar construct). We then wanted to know if spanking had similar relationships as physical and emotional abuse with poor adult mental health. Finally, we wanted to know if including spanking added to our understanding of poor adult mental health outcome over and above what we would know from only examining physical and emotional abuse.


What we found using the same original data as the landmark Felitti et al. 1998 study was that spanking was statistically similar to physical and emotional abuse. We also found that spanking was associated with an increased likelihood of suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking, and use of street drugs in adulthood. Finally, these relationships remained significant after adjusting for the experiences of physical and emotional abuse, meaning including spanking while adjusting for the effects of abuse improved our understanding of ACEs.


Our study indicates that spanking is similar to other abuse ACEs and adds to our understanding of mental health problems over and above what we already know from only including abuse. Spanking is an ACE. This means that we need to include spanking in ACE research, prevention efforts, and when wanting to understand one’s own ACEs. This also highlights the importance of preventing not just child abuse and neglect, but also harsh parenting before it occurs.    


For access to the complete study please use the following link.

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Alison Shearer wrote:

"Bereavement should also be included as an ACE... one thing missing from ACE work is death and the grief that follows."

Spot on, Alison! We all know "Death is an absolute certainty in life," but we also know the manner of death and relationship of person to the child are so important to the traumatic effect of the death, especially when it occurs at more vulnerable developmental emotional phases for the child. My wife lost her grandmother when she was a young child, the one adult she felt really loved her unconditionally. She recounts the lack of addressing this loss, feeling so lost and alone, for her suicide attempt at 12 years old. "We (do) need to acknowledge its impact and (develop) ways of helping children come to terms with the loss, ...addressing this global problem (in a timely manner) to give children the best chance of growing up without the (effects of trauma) of their childhoods (on their psyche)." Thank you for your insight.

Excellent question! Spanking in our study was defined as being spanked a few times per year, many times per year, or weekly or more. Spanking defined in this way was associated with increased likelihood of poor outcomes in adulthood. So yes, spanking even a few times a year or more is an ACE because the data show that it puts kids at risk for serious negative outcomes.

David Dooley posted:

If spanking is defined as a couple of open-handed swats on the bottom administered no more than five times in the child's life... is that an adverse childhood experience?

Very interesting question.  I too wondered about operational definition, context, timing, age and cognition, severity and elements of scale.  I would imagine most of these variables would somehow influence the outcome.   How does spanking differ from or scale when discussing corporal punishment?  What are the points on such a scale, if one does or should exist? 

Last edited by Pamela Denise Long

Tracie, what very interesting research.  I've wondered this for quite some time and you've provided empirical evidence as to the answer.  Thank you for sharing your work!  I echo David's question about frequency and severity, and Karen's observation that the topic can be polarizing. Keep up the great work!

I think bereavement should also be included as an ACE. A significant loss has a huge impact on children. I experienced the loss of a parent as a teenager and the experience has impacted on my life in many ways and 30yrs later I have now acknowledged and accepted it. At school no one even asked how I was, no one allowed me to express my grief and I was only chastised for my rebellious behaviour. I returned to school 2 weeks after the loss to sit my exams. I think it is because people feel very uncomfortable discussing bereavement. 

My child experienced an immediate family loss at 3years old, the separation and end of his parents relationship after domestic abuse and acrimony and another bereavement in his immediate family all within 9 months.  

Thenursery staff took me to the side following the first bereavement and asked what they should do if he wanted to talk about it! I said that he should be allowed to express his feelings. The members of staff were very uncomfortable even raising the issue with me. 

My son still has lots of issues in relation to the bereavement and losses. I  have tried many avenues to get him counseling  but it's not there.  The school said he was too young for the seasons of change but can access it when he is older! He has been attending equine therapy for the past three months and is beginning to be able to let some emotions out. He presents with all the signs of trauma but no input for this other than working with the horses. I had to find out myself about that so we are trying it out and it is working. The people who run the therapy sessions have assured that he will only stop attending when he himself decides to prevent him experiencing further loss.

We are beginning to address many things that impact adversely on our children and that is so positive. The one thing that is missing from the ACE work is death and the grief that follows. If not addressed after the event then it can have significant impact on children.

It has taken me 30yrs, many therapeutic approaches, psychiatrist, psychologist, support worker input, medication, life coaching and alternative approaches, primarily reiki healing. 

I work as a senior mental health nurse and I have only sought proper help one year ago after the third episode of anxiety and depression. I am also in recovery from addiction problems and I believe that it is as a result of complex trauma and loss as a child.

I am in the UK, in Scotland. 

I am due to start Havening therapy tomorrow to help me release more of the trauma I locked away for many years. 

Death is an absolute certainty in life and we need to acknowledge it's impact and have ways of helping children come to terms with the loss. 

I specialised in working with Mentally Disordered Offenders, most if not all with histories of my multiple ACEs who have developed a mental disorder and committed serious criminal acts but by then the horse has bolted and it requires so much effort and input to turn things around for them. 

We must address this global problem at the time or afterwards to give children the best chance of growing up without the baggage of their childhoods. 



Thank you for sharing your research.  The topic of spanking is polarizing.  I hope your research will help tip the scales of understanding. 

Thank you too, for focusing on the prevention - healing two generations at one time!  

From your article:  This also highlights the importance of preventing not just child abuse and neglect, but also harsh parenting before it occurs.

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