What Is Corporal Punishment?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated November 28, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, corporal punishment is "a discipline method in which a supervising adult deliberately inflicts pain upon a child in response to a child's unacceptable behavior and/or inappropriate language.”

Corporal punishment has a long and complicated history in terms of its use in schools, in judicial punishment, and in the home, and for many people, it was a method of discipline used by their caregivers when they were children. Today, research seems to suggest that it rarely has more benefits than downsides. There are typically healthier ways to enforce discipline that may lead to the intended effect without causing undue harm.

Navigating Corporal Punishment And Its Effects Can Be Hard

Corporal Punishment Toward Children

The American Psychological Association “recognizes that scientific evidence demonstrates the negative effects of physical discipline of children by caregivers and thereby recommends that caregivers use alternative forms of discipline that are associated with more positive outcomes for children.” Also, there is mounting evidence that it does more harm than good—long-term harm, to be specific.

Corporal punishment can cause children to be more aggressive and antisocial. Also, it can lead to more serious, injurious behavior by caregivers and can cause damage to children’s mental health.

Because corporal punishment does little to motivate children to behave better, parents may believe their children simply aren't listening to them. The result is often further punishment, which may only repeat and worsen the cycle. The desired outcome, whether it be to change behavior or get a child to show more respect, is unlikely to come as a result of the child learning a lesson. Instead, it may stem solely from fear and an attempt to safeguard themselves.

Parents may see the short-term effects as proof that the punishment is working because it got their children to change their behavior. However, while it may work in the short term because the children are afraid of pain, it can turn them into more aggressive adults who may then be more likely to use the same kind of punishment against their own children. It may also damage the relationship between a parent and child, motivate children to keep things from their parents, or otherwise create a sense of distrust that is often not conducive to healthy bonds.

Corporal Punishment As A Judicial Punishment

As a judicial punishment, corporal punishment is sometimes used when someone is sentenced for a crime. For instance, in 1994, a story made the world news when an American teenager, Michael Fay, was sentenced for vandalism in Singapore with six strikes from a cane. Judicial caning is one of the more common methods of corporal punishment in the judicial sense. Other kinds of punishment can include:

  • Foot whipping (bastinado)
  • Birching, or being whipped with a birch rod
  • Whipping
  • Strapping, or being whipped with leather

Today, corporal punishment as a judicial punishment is largely outlawed. The only countries still practicing it include two to three dozen in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and most of them allow the punishment only under certain restrictions.


Corporal Punishment In Schools

Corporal punishment in schools generally refers to the act of paddling a child on the buttocks or the palm if they misbehave in school. This scenario can also cause vicarious punishment, wherein other students avoid doing the same behavior after observing someone who faced the undesirable consequences for engaging in such behavior. For the most part, corporal punishment in schools has been widely outlawed, although there are still some countries that actively practice it. Medical professionals have been largely influential in the practice being abolished, citing, among other reasons, the injuries that are inflicted upon a child's hands.

However, as recently as 2014, news outlets were reporting that corporal punishment in public school was still allowed in 19 U.S. states, including:

  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • North and South Carolina
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Texas

Consider Adopting New Disciplinary Methods

If you've been an advocate for corporal punishment, it may help to take a step back and consider its potential benefits and downsides. Many parents are hesitant to move away from corporal punishment because of its ability to produce fast results. Even so, parents may be perpetuating a cycle of undesirable behavior by engaging in corporal punishment.

While it may take some practice to rethink your habits, especially if you were subject to corporal punishment during your childhood, it may be worth considering. Identifying when you tend to use corporal punishment might help you better prepare for situations where it may be difficult to break the habit. It may also be a good idea to consider what goals motivate you to use corporal punishment so that you can find specific strategies to meet them in other ways.

Encouraging your child to talk about how they are feeling can also help avoid intense or overwhelming situations for both parties. It’s okay if the idea of not having this tool feels daunting to you; many parents find it difficult to summon the kind of patience that’s often needed in a situation where their child is highly emotional, reactive, or potentially at risk of injuring themselves. Being open with your child in a way that’s age-appropriate may help both of you empathize with each other and de-escalate the situation.

If you do slip up and lose your patience, try not to be too hard on yourself. Like any skill, learning new parenting habits can take practice, and parents are human, too. What matters most is likely that you take the steps to make things right. If necessary, you can apologize to your children. You can tell them you love them, promise to do better next time, and then do everything you can to honor that promise.

Getting Help As A Caregiver

Parenting comes with challenges. It’s also okay to need a bit of help as you navigate this process. Even if you don’t practice corporal punishment yourself, having good parenting tools at your side can help you avoid disciplining your child in a way that you may not truly mean. Likewise, experiencing corporal punishment yourself can be upsetting and make it difficult to find other ways to communicate with others.

No matter what the case may be, it can be beneficial to speak to a mental health professional about your thoughts and concerns. If you don’t feel comfortable going to a therapist’s office to discuss sensitive topics, online therapy might be a more fitting option. Online therapy can make it even easier to find someone who understands your experiences and can provide you with the support you may need. Also, because you can join sessions from the comfort of your own home, you can save time and money you might otherwise dedicate to going to and from in-person appointments.

Navigating Corporal Punishment And Its Effects Can Be Hard

Research suggests that online therapy can be an effective way to address mental health concerns and provide individuals with valuable resources. One recent review of over a dozen studies on electronic cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) found that online treatment was more effective than in-person therapy at treating depression. Other studies validate the usefulness of online therapy for other concerns, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With online therapy at BetterHelp, you can communicate with a licensed therapist via audio or video chat—whatever you find more comfortable. Also, you can reach out to your therapist via in-app messaging, and they’ll reply as soon as they can.


Overall, research shows that corporal punishment is a method that typically causes more harm than good. While it may produce immediate results, it’s often through fear and anger, which can be damaging to both children and parents. If you have concerns about corporal punishment or parenting in general, you don’t have to navigate them on your own. Take the first step to improving as a parent and contact BetterHelp today.

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