Attachment Style and the Association of Spanking and Child Externalizing Behavior

Acad Pediatr. May-Jun 2020;20(4):501-507. doi: 10.1016/j.acap.2019.06.017. Epub 2019 Jul 3.


Objective: To examine whether the longitudinal associations between maternal spanking and child externalizing behavior are moderated by attachment style.

Methods: This study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (n = 2211), a large cohort sample of low-income urban families. Multiple-group autoregressive cross-lagged models examined the associations between maternal spanking and child externalizing behavior when children were ages 1, 3, and 5. Moderation by attachment style was examined using structural invariance testing.

Results: For children with an insecure mother-child attachment style, spanking at age 1 was associated with externalizing behavior at age 3. However, for children with a secure mother-child attachment style, the association between maternal spanking at age 1 and child externalizing behavior at age 3 was absent. Attachment style did not moderate the association between maternal spanking at age 3 and externalizing behavior at age 5, suggesting that spanking at age 3 is associated with deleterious outcomes at age 5, regardless of attachment style.

Conclusions: Results suggest that even in the context of a secure attachment style, spanking is associated with adverse outcomes in early childhood. Findings support the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 policy statement, which encourages parents to avoid spanking when disciplining children. Results suggest that children, regardless of attachment style, may benefit from policies and services that promote non-violent forms of discipline.

Keywords: attachment; parenting; physical discipline; physical punishment; spanking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Behavior
  • Child Behavior Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Parenting
  • Poverty
  • Punishment*