Smacking children: what you need to know
Smacking is a physical punishment.
Smacking looks like it works because children stop what they’re doing when they get a smack. But smacking isn’t a good choice for discipline. That’s because it doesn’t help children learn about self-control or appropriate behaviour.
As a form of punishment, smacking has 3 other big drawbacks.
First, there’s a risk that smacking might hurt your child.
Second, it can give children the message that smacking or hitting other people is an OK way to deal with strong feelings.
Third, physical punishment like smacking can lead to longer-term problems in children’s health and development. Children who are smacked can be more aggressive than children who aren’t smacked. They’re more likely to have challenging behaviour, anxiety or depression.
There are better ways than smacking to guide children towards good behaviour.
Alternatives to smacking: helping children behave well
One of the best ways for parents to avoid situations where they might feel like smacking is to create opportunities for children to behave well.
Having clear family rules is the first step. Rules let your child know what behaviour you expect and can help you avoid difficult behaviour from your child.
You can also plan ahead for situations where your child tends to behave in challenging ways. For example, you might want to wait until after your child has had a nap or a snack before you take them grocery shopping. This can make it easier for your child to sit still in the trolley.
If your child is behaving in a way you don’t like, it’s a good idea to look at what’s going on in your child’s environment. By changing your child’s environment, you might be able to change your child’s behaviour too. This can be as simple as moving fragile things out of reach.
And sometimes just distracting your child in a challenging situation is enough to reduce bad behaviour.
Using consequences instead of smacking
Part of firm and fair discipline is setting limits on children’s behaviour. For preschoolers and school-age children this can include using consequences when children break rules or misbehave.
Consequences work in the long term only when you combine them with positive strategies to encourage good behaviour.
Consequences aren’t recommended for children under 3 years old, because they don’t help young children change their behaviour. Babies and toddlers are too young to understand that a consequence has happened because of something they did. And they also don’t know the difference between right and wrong.
Managing frustration, anger and stress as a parent
Managing your own feelings is an important part of creating a warm and loving family environment that helps your child behave well.
If you can manage your own angry or frustrated feelings in positive and healthy ways – for example, by staying calm, taking a few deep breaths or even walking away – you give your child a great example of how to behave.
And if you feel like smacking your child, put your child in a safe place – for example, a cot – or ask someone else to hold your child for a while. Take some time out until you feel calmer. Try going to another room to breathe deeply or calling a family member or friend to talk things through.
If you feel this way a lot, talk to your child and family health nurse or GP.
If you’re finding it hard to manage your child’s challenging behaviour, see your family GP or call a parenting hotline for support and advice.
Smacking: how children feel
When parents smack a child, they’re often trying to say, ‘You’ve done the wrong thing – behaving that way isn’t OK’. But this isn’t the message children receive. A child who’s being smacked might think their parent is saying, ‘I’m angry with you and I don’t like you’.
Children mostly feel fear, anger and sadness when they’re smacked. They might also feel confused and lose trust in their parents. They usually can’t think about what they’ve done wrong or understand why they’re getting a smack.
The kids are chucking a tantrum and the irony is you then nearly chuck an adult tantrum to try to control them.
– Jennifer, mother of Olivia and Ava