Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Severe physical punishment: risk of mental health problems for poor urban children in Brazil

Isabel A Bordin, Cristiane S Duarte, Clovis A Peres, Rosimeire Nascimento, Bartira M Curto & Cristiane S Paula

Objective

To examine the relationship between specific types of child mental health problems and severe physical punishment, in combination with other important known risk factors.

Methods

We conducted a cross-sectional study in Embu, São Paulo, Brazil, as the Brazilian component of a multicountry survey on abuse in the family environment. From a probabilistic sample of clusters that included all eligible households (women aged 15–49 years with a son or daughter < 18 years of age), we randomly selected one mother–child pair per household (n = 813; attrition rate: 17.6%). This study focused on children aged 6–17 years (n = 480). Child Behaviour Checklist CBCL/6–18 was used to identify children with internalizing problems only, externalizing problems only, and both internalizing and externalizing problems (comorbidity). Severe physical punishment was defined as being hit with an object, being kicked, choked, smothered, burnt, scalded, branded, beaten or threatened with a weapon. We examined other potential correlates from four domains: child (gender, age, ever witnessing marital violence); mother (education, unemployment, anxiety or depression, marital violence); father (absence, drunkenness); and family (socioeconomic status). The WHO Self-Reporting Questionnaire (SRQ-20) was used to identify maternal anxiety or depression (score > 7). Backward logistic regression analysis identified independent correlates and significant interactions.

Findings

Multivariate modelling showed that severe punishment was an independent correlate of comorbid internalizing and externalizing problems but was not associated with internalizing problems only. It increased the risk of externalizing problems alone only for children and adolescents not exposed to maternal anxiety or depression. Maternal anxiety or depression increased the risk only for children or adolescents not exposed to severe punishment.

Conclusion

Severe punishment may be related to child mental health problems, with the mechanism depending on the type of problem. Its influence persists in the presence of family stressors such as the father’s absence and maternal anxiety or depression.

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