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Violent discipline of children is pervasive, with damaging effects that can extend into adulthood

Child discipline is an integral part of child-rearing that teaches children self-control and acceptable behaviour. Violent discipline, on the other hand, is intended to cause a child physical pain or emotional distress as a way to correct misbehaviour and to act as a deterrent. The consequences of violent discipline range from immediate effects to long-term damage that children carry well into adulthood. Moreover, research findings suggest that even mild forms of physical discipline are harmful to children. While relatively little is known about how parents discipline their children, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, household surveys in 49 countries suggest that the use of violent discipline is widespread, among both boys and girls.

Violent discipline can take two forms: physical (or corporal) punishment and psychological aggression. The effects vary according to the nature, extent and severity of the exposure.

Violent forms of discipline have been shown to reduce cognitive capacity and increase the proclivity for future violent acts. Violent psychological discipline – such as denigration, ridicule, threats and intimidation – has also been shown to have a range of negative effects on children’s behaviour and functioning later in life. In particular, exposure to prolonged, severe or unpredictable stress can physiologically alter brain development during infancy and childhood and affect a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Violent disciplinary practices – including both physical punishment and harsh psychological discipline – can therefore be viewed as forms of maltreatment, with serious repercussion for both the individual and society.

Violent discipline is also a violation of a child’s right to protection from all forms of violence while in the care of their parents or other caregivers, as set forth in articles 5 and 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention recognizes and respects the responsibility of parents and other caregivers to provide “direction and guidance” to children. There is, however, the explicit understanding that such guidance should not involve any form of violence. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that the “interpretation of ‘appropriate’ direction and guidance must be consistent with the whole Convention and leaves no room for justification of violent or other cruel or degrading forms of discipline.”

Despite a legal framework prohibiting it and known detrimental effects, violent discipline within the family is one of the most common forms of child maltreatment.

 

PREVALENCE OF VIOLENT DISCIPLINE

Data from 49 countries and areas show that large proportions of children are subjected to violent discipline in the home and that its use is pervasive across regions. In 13 of the 49 countries, the use of violent discipline is nearly universal: Household surveys found that more than 90 per cent of children between the ages of 2 and 14 years had experienced some form of violent discipline within the previous month.

Violent discipline appears to be the rule, rather than the exception
Percentage of children aged 2 to 4 years who experienced any violent discipline (physical punishment and/or psychological aggression) in the previous month, in selected countries and areas with available data

Notes: Data for Kyrgyzstan refer to children aged 3 to 14 years. Data for Belarus differ from the standard definition.

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2014, based on Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and other nationally representative surveys, 2005─2012.  

GENDER DISPARITIES

All children, regardless of their sex or family background, are at risk of being subjected to violent disciplinary practices. This is confirmed by data showing that boys and girls are equally likely to be disciplined in a violent manner in almost all countries with very high prevalence levels.

Girls are as likely as boys to be subjected to violent discipline
Percentage of children aged 2 to 14 years who experienced any violent discipline in the previous month, by sex of the child, in countries and areas with a prevalence of violent discipline at or above 90 per cent.

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2014, based on DHS, MICS and other nationally representative surveys, 2006─2012. 

ATTITUDES TOWARDS VIOLENT DISCIPLINE

Understanding adult beliefs about the best ways to bring up a child are essential to interpreting the prevalence of child discipline. The data suggest that a relatively small share of adults believe in the need to use physical punishment to properly raise and educate a child. Nevertheless, high rates of violent discipline recorded in most countries suggest that physical punishment is used in many households, even when caregivers do not necessarily believe in the practice.

Only a minority of adults in most countries condone physical punishment, despite its widespread use
Percentage of adults who think that physical punishment is necessary to raise/educate children, in selected countries and areas with available data

Notes: * data refer to the attitudes of mothers/primary caregivers. **data refer to children aged 2-14 years whose mother/primary caregiver thinks that physical punishment is necessary to raise/educate children. Data for all other countries refer to the attitudes of respondents to the child discipline module.

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2014, based on DHS, MICS and other nationally representative surveys, 2005-2012.

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Violent discipline of children
Percentage of children aged 2-14 years who experience any violent discipline (by sex, place of residence and household wealth quintile) Download Data
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Notes on the Data

DATA SOURCES

Comparable data on child discipline are mainly available from Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS). The MICS include a standard set of questions covering different disciplinary methods, including nonviolent forms of discipline, psychological aggression and physical means of punishing children. The child discipline module was included for the first time in the third round of MICS (MICS3, mainly conducted in 2005─2006). Data on child discipline collected through MICS were available for 43 countries as of January 2014. Some Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and other national household surveys have also collected the standard, or modified, versions of the MICS child discipline module. 

The child discipline module used in MICS is adapted from the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale (CTSPC),[1] which is an epidemiological instrument used to assess the treatment of children. Psychological aggression refers to the action of shouting, yelling or screaming at a child, as well as calling a child offensive names, such as ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy’. Physical (or corporal) punishment is an action intended to cause physical pain or discomfort, but not injuries. Physical punishment is defined as shaking the child, hitting or slapping him/her on the hand/arm/leg, hitting him/her on the bottom or elsewhere on the body with a hard object, spanking or hitting him/her on the bottom with a bare hand, hitting or slapping him/her on the face, head or ears, and beating him/her over and over as hard as possible.

The nonviolent disciplinary practices included in the child discipline module are: 1) explaining why a behaviour is wrong, 2) taking away privileges or not allowing him/her to leave the house, and 3) giving him/her something else to do. Respondents are also asked whether they believe it is necessary to use physical punishment to raise children. 

When it was first implemented in MICS3, the child discipline module was administered only to mothers/primary caregivers, who were asked whether any of the disciplinary methods covered in the module had been used by any member of the household during the month preceding the interview. Beginning with MICS4, the methodology was changed: Any adult household member, not just the mother or primary caregiver, can now respond to the questions on child discipline. This means that data on child discipline collected in MICS3 are not directly comparable with data collected in subsequent rounds for any given country.

MAIN INDICATORS

In the third and fourth rounds of MICS, the standard indicator referred to the percentage of children aged 2 to 14 years who experienced any form of violent discipline (physical punishment and/or psychological aggression) within the past month. Beginning with the latest round of MICS (MICS5, to be completed by 2015), the age group covered was expanded to capture children’s experiences with disciplinary practices between the ages of 1 and 14 years.

MICS MODULE ON CHILD DISCIPLINE

MICS surveys have a standardized module on child discipline. 

Download the MICS module on child discipline (PDF) 


[1] Straus, M.A., et al., ‘Identification of Child Maltreatment with the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales: Development and psychometric data for a national sample of American parents’, Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 22, 1998, pp. 249─270.