Recently, a video of a couple hitting their daughter publicly in Jurong West with a cane and a tree branch went viral, prompting the mother to write to the media to apologise for her action.
She said her daughter had lied to her about homework and she “just exploded” as she could not believe that she had raised a liar.
The video, posted two months ago, sparked a debate on whether caning is the best way to discipline children.
Though caning is not so common here nowadays, it is still practised. And experts warn that corporal punishment can have a lasting psychological impact on the child.
Caning can harm
Caning is used to instil fear in a child, thereby prompting obedience. But constant fear of the cane can tip a child into anxiety and depression, said Dr Jennifer Kiing, a senior consultant in the child development unit of the National University Hospital.
“If you cane a child, his stress level goes up. If his stress level goes up too frequently, his fear response becomes anxiety. And if his anxiety stays, it can become depression.”
The more frequently or severely a child is hit or caned, the more likely he will have symptoms of depression or anxiety, said Dr Kiing.
One of her former patients, who was frequently caned for infractions, had developed an anxiety disorder by the time she saw him at the age of six or seven. He had problems making friends and coping in school.
The parents said they had started caning him from the age of two and, after a year or two of caning, he had become quite withdrawn.
Dr Kiing said: “Many parents don’t realise that caning can have adverse long-term effects.”
Studies have shown that corporal punishment is associated with aggressive and anti-social behaviours in later life. Children who are beaten repeatedly over time have higher rates of anxiety and depression, she said.
Being caned constantly may lead the child to believe that physical aggression is condoned, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital.
Such children often perceive themselves as being physically abused and this can have a lasting impact on their relationships with other people, he said.
Dr Lim has a 30-year-old patient who is estranged from her family and is depressed and irritable.
“She has intense animosity towards them and finds it hard to trust or relate to people,” he said.
“As she was frequently punished and caned, she perceived that she was not loved.”
Dr Lim said: “There is an association of physical punishment in childhood with depression in adulthood. So it is likely that the caning and perception of physical abuse had aggravated her depression.”
Parents who use the cane habitually may not realise that they themselves suffer from anxiety and feelings of lack of control.
When a parent uses excessive force or corporal punishment more frequently than necessary, it may be a sign of increased irritability due to poor anger management, stress, anxiety disorders or depression, said Dr Lim.
Discipline or abuse?
Dr Kiing said: “When you are disciplining the child and it’s emotional, it’s very hard to not overdiscipline him. There’s a line that can be easily crossed.”
Many child abuse cases are related to child discipline issues – the parents want to discipline the child but end up abusing him.
She said: “All parents want the best for their child but, sometimes, our emotions get the better of us.”
Ms Ong Li Min, principal clinical psychologist at the child and adolescent psychiatry department at the Institute of Mental Health, said: “If you are not in good control of your emotions, you are likely to hit the child harder than you want to.”
She added: “The child will react to this and the parents may lose their self-control.”
Many parents use caning to discipline their child because that was how they themselves were brought up. Many subscribe to the idea that “to spare the rod is to spoil the child”.
Ms Ong said the impact of corporal punishment on a child depends on the punishment, its frequency and his personality.
The parent-child relationship plays a big part in moderating the effects, she said.
But caning a child publicly is out. “We should try not to humiliate the child in public as it would affect his self-esteem,” she said.