Nearly 400 million young children worldwide regularly experience violent discipline at home – UNICEF

New data also reveal many young children are deprived of play, stimulation, and interaction with their parents and caregivers

11 June 2024
Майка с две деца и играчки

Sofia, Bulgaria 11 June 2024 — Nearly 400 million children under 5 — or 6 in 10 children within that age group globally — regularly endure psychological aggression or physical punishment at home, according to new UNICEF estimates. Of them, around 330 million are punished by physical means.

The findings also emphasize the crucial role of play in children’s development and the mental health of children, parents, and caregivers in response to data that highlights the prevalence of inadequate caregiving, including stimulation and interaction at home.

Playing is the best positive interaction between a caregiver and a child. The earlier the playing starts, the better for the child development. The intensive "serve and return" announced by the scientists interaction of a parent with their child is the best way of playing and the positive interaction which supports the brain optimal development.

While positive feelings and emotions, result of the play between a child and his parents are nurturing a child’s brain, the toxic stress, caused by violent discipline practices is harmful and can have a negative effect on the future development of the child.

“When children are subjected to physical or verbal abuse at home, or when they are deprived of social and emotional care from their loved ones, it can undermine their sense of self-worth and development,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Nurturing and playful parenting can bring joy and also help children feel safe, learn, build skills, and navigate the world around them.”

More and more countries are prohibiting physical punishment against children in the home. Over half of the 66 countries that have banned the practice have enacted legislation within the past 15 years, but this still leaves around half a billion children under the age of 5 without adequate legal protection.

The study on Violence Against Children in Bulgaria[1]  revealed that two out of every five parents (39.8 per cent) reported using violent physical punishment (including slapping, smacking, spanking, hitting, kicking or using an object to beat their child) against their children in the last year. Parents of younger children (under 6) were significantly more likely to report using physical violence as a form of discipline than parents of older children (12 years and older)

Globally, harmful social norms that underpin violent childrearing methods persist, with slightly more than 1 in 4 mothers and primary caregivers indicating that physical punishment is necessary to raise and educate children properly, according to the findings.

The data – released on the first-ever International Day of Play – also underscore disparities in caregiving practices and access to play opportunities. For example, new estimates show that approximately 4 in 10 children aged 2-4 years do not get enough responsive interaction or stimulation at home, meaning they may experience emotional neglect and a sense of detachment, insecurity, and behavioural issues that can persist into adulthood. Meanwhile, 1 in 10 misses out on activities with their caregivers that are critical to promoting cognitive, social, and emotional development, like reading, storytelling, singing, and drawing.

The data also show that around 1 in 5 children aged 2-4 years do not play with their caregivers at home, while roughly 1 in 8 under age 5 do not have toys or playthings at home.

Results from another UNICEF survey, conducted among 5,000 parents from 13 countries in Europe and Central Asia, including: Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, through the mobile app, Bebbo - show that three quarters of parents reported needing stronger parenting support programmes but only half had been able to access it.

Most parents sought support from friends, family, neighbours and the UNICEF’s Bebbo parenting app, which provides expert advice on child health and development.

Less commonly parents turned to community organisations, government and public services for support.

“The early parenting years can be overwhelming, but they are a unique window of opportunity to build strong developmental foundations for a child’s whole life,” – said Christina de Bruin, UNICEF Representative in Bulgaria and added:

“These survey results are a call to action from parents to decision makers and employers to strengthen parenting support systems and programmes for the best start in life for every child. In Bulgaria UNICEF supports two effective programs for parenting support – Visiting nurses and Early Childhood Intervention. In addition, to support parents, the United Nations Children’s Fund launched Bebbo – a free innovative application, developed by ECD experts and approved by the Ministry of Health in Bulgaria.”

Studies show that evidence-based parenting programmes improve caregiving, reduce family violence and maltreatment, and enhance the mental health of children and parents. These programmes include coaching on positive approaches, building strong parent-child relationships, and supporting play, nonviolent discipline, and communication.

To ensure every child grows up feeling safe and loved, UNICEF calls on governments to strengthen efforts and investment in:

  • Protection: Strengthening legal and policy frameworks that prohibit and end all forms of violence against children in the home;
  • Parenting support: Scaling up evidence-based parenting programmes that promote positive, playful approaches, and prevent family violence;
  • Playful learning: Expanding access to learning and play spaces for children, including preschools, schools, and playgrounds.

“On the first International Day of Play, we must unite and recommit to ending violence against children and promoting positive, nurturing, and playful caregiving,” added Russell.

See how UNICEF in Bulgaria supports parents and children in our Annual Report for 2023 here.

Media contacts

Nadya Marinova
Communications Associate
UNICEF Bulgaria
Tel: 0888 552 645
Tel: 0899 058 087


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