Physical discipline still 'fairly common' practice among Kiwi parents - study

Researchers are calling for better promotion of child-friendly parenting techniques after a new study revealed it's still "fairly common" for New Zealand parents to use physical discipline on their children.

The researchers at Otago and Canterbury University interviewed more than 700 Kiwis to understand the frequency and type of physical punishment they’ve used as parents from 2002 to 2017.

Published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on Friday, the study found there's been a "clear downward trend" in the use of child physical punishment.

Smacking a child on their bottom reduced by almost half (77 percent to 42 percent) from 2002 to 2017, and severe assaults declined by two-thirds (12 percent to 4 percent).

The most common forms of physical punishment were smacking a child on the bottom and slapping their hand, arm or leg. The study found parents who are younger, are caring for more children, and are in violent relationships, are more likely to use physical discipline.

A history of personal mental health problems and concurrent family socioeconomic disadvantage were also influential.

Physical punishment has been shown to have detrimental effects on children later in their lives, including affecting relationships, their mental health, educational achievement and criminal activity.

But despite the falling rates of use, the authors found that the practice still remains fairly common in New Zealand, even after the implementation of the 2007 anti-smacking law.

"These findings suggest that despite both changing perceptions towards physical punishment and violence toward children and the 2007 legislation, a substantial minority of New Zealanders may still view physical punishment as an acceptable form of child discipline," the authors wrote.

Researchers are now calling for more effort to be put into promoting child-friendly parenting techniques. 

"There remains a need for continued public education on reducing physical violence; for providing alternative strategies to manage child behaviour; and for ongoing monitoring of parental use of physical punishment against changing societal tolerance of violence toward children."

Clinical psychologist Melanie Woodfield said many parents of young children occasionally experience "a fleeting thought or an urge" to hit their child.

"Usually, after thought or urge to hit a child, emotion regulation, self-control, and inhibition mean the urge passes - and the parent instead chooses another response," Dr Woodfield said. "However, where parents are chronically stressed, overwhelmed, isolated, unsupported or have pre-existing difficulties with emotion regulation, this process of inhibition may be compromised."