Mom with Toddler in Desert

The Interplay of Externalizing Problems and Physical and Inductive Discipline during Childhood


Children who are physically disciplined are at elevated risk for externalizing problems. Conversely, maternal reasoning and reminding of rules, or inductive discipline, is associated with fewer child externalizing problems. Few studies have simultaneously examined bidirectional associations between these forms of discipline and child adjustment using cross-informant, multi-method data. We hypothesized that less inductive and more physical discipline would predict more externalizing problems, children would have evocative effects on parenting, and high levels of either form of discipline would predict low levels of the other. In a study of 241 children–spanning ages 3, 5.5, and 10–structural equation modeling indicated that 3-year-olds with higher teacher ratings of externalizing problems received higher mother ratings of physical discipline at age 5.5. Mothers endorsing more inductive discipline at child age 3 reported less physical discipline and had children with fewer externalizing problems at age 5.5. Negative bidirectional associations emerged between physical and inductive discipline from ages 5.5 to 10. Findings suggested children’s externalizing problems elicited physical discipline, and maternal inductive discipline might help prevent externalizing problems and physical discipline.


This study demonstrates that when considering both positive and negative forms of child discipline, parents tend to use physical discipline techniques such as spanking and threats of corporal punishment with kindergartners who showed some behavior problems during preschool. Use of positive discipline techniques with young children like verbal reasoning, reminding of rules, and explaining the consequences of children’s behavior for others’ well-being may prevent parents’ use of harsh discipline and prevent children’s behavior problems.