Among a nationally representative sample of kindergarten children and their mothers, we found that maternal depressive symptoms and violence between adult partners were both associated with an increased likelihood of smacking. Moreover, when co-existent, these two exposures were associated with an even greater likelihood of smacking. Among children with poor self-control, the magnitude of association of maternal depressive symptoms and violence with smacking appeared particularly high; however, there was no statistical evidence of effect modification. Among mothers reporting smacking, there was no statistically significant association between maternal depression or violence exposure alone with frequency of smacking, after controlling for child behaviors; however, when maternal depression and violence exposure were present together, mothers tended to report a higher frequency of smacking regardless of child behavior.
Our study is rooted in the known comorbidity of violence exposure and depression. While a significant minority of depressed women have been exposed to violence, the majority of women victimized by violence display clinically significant depressive symtomatology.17 30
Furthermore, previous studies have documented correlates to the use of physical punishment.7 8 31 32
Reporting maternal depression or violence as independent correlates, therefore, is not new. However, an increasing amount of data suggest that the impact of maternal depression – for both mother and child – can be exacerbated by a number of co-morbid factors, violence exposure chief among them.33
Similarly, although existing data suggest that child behavior problems may develop as a result of physical punishment practices,2
there is a paucity of data on how child behaviors impact the relationship between parent-level risk factors and the practice of physical punishment. Our results can be viewed as an initial inquiry into this potentially important dynamic.
A principal strength of this study is that child behaviors were reported by teachers, thereby preventing the potential bias of relying on parents to report both child behaviors and their own punishment practices. Our study, however, has a number of limitations. Since our study was cross-sectional, we cannot comment on causality; and as in any observational study, the potential for unmeasured confounding exists. Additionally, we were restricted to a single question to assess in-home violence – the psychometric properties of which are unknown. It is likely that the limited range of violent behaviors covered by this measure represents an underreporting bias, and limits the extent to which our results can be generalized to other types of violence. Furthermore, because the in-home violence measure specifically asked mothers about their relationship to their partner, our results can be generalized only to partnered mothers – who constitute 82% of the total representative ECLS dataset. It should be noted in this vein that multiple previous studies have demonstrated that maternal depression – our other principal exposure – is more common among single mothers;34
and that it is possible that many such mothers are single due to previous domestic violence.
Similarly, although our question on smacking has been used in similar format in other studies,35
it too represents a measure with unknown psychometric properties. That said, however, we know of no alternative question on smacking that has been proven valid or reliable, and our estimate of smacking frequency is consistent with at least one recent nationally representative US study on smacking,32
suggesting our estimate is accurate. Lastly, our ability to demonstrate interactions between maternal depressive symptoms, violence, and childhood behaviors was also limited. Although our sample size was large, total sample size may not be the major driver of statistical power to detect interactions when a sample is parsed unevenly. Therefore, despite an initial large sample size, we actually faced small cell sizes when modeling interactions involving variables with uneven distributions – particularly the child behavior sets.
With these limitations in mind, we believe that our study offers further evidence for the combined adverse effects of maternal depression and violence exposure on the children of affected women. Our data suggest that these common – and potentially modifiable – risk factors are more apt to affect whether or not a mother uses smacking to discipline her children than it is to affect the frequency of smacking. Although the relationship between parent and child-level factors relative to punishment practices is complex, our data suggest that meaningful associations between maternal depression, violence exposure, and smacking persist in the face of varying child behaviors. While our findings are not necessarily generalizable to other parental risk factors or child behaviors, they do imply that subsequent research on maternal depression’s impact on children should consider the potentially exacerbating effects of violence. They also suggest that subsequent research on physical punishment – and by association, efforts to find viable alternatives to it – should consider what both parent and child bring to the punishment interactions that occur between them.
What is already known about this topic
- Maternal depression and in-home violence are independently associated with the use of physical punishment on children.
- Negative child behaviors, considered independently from parent-level characteristics, are associated with the use of physical punishment on children as well.
What this study adds
- When co-existent, maternal depression and in-home violence are associated with a greater likelihood to employ smacking as a means of discipline than when either factor is present alone.
- These associations do not appear to be modified substantially by child self-control or externalizing behaviors.