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Effect of Spanking on Kids’ Brains Similar to Abuse

April 19, 2021 – Rare is the parent who has never thought of spanking an unruly child. But a new study provides another reason to avoid corporal punishment: Spanking can cause changes in the same areas of a child’s brain affected by more serious physical and sexual abuse.

Previous research has consistently found links between spanking and behavior problems, aggression, depression and anxiety, says Jorge Cuartas, a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the study’s first author. “We wanted to examine a potential mechanism, brain development, that might explain how corporal punishment can impact children’s behavior and cognitive development.”

The study, published in Child development, used functional MRIs to map brain changes in 147 preteen girls who had never experienced physical or sexual abuse. The researchers tracked which parts of children’s brains were activated in response to neutral or fearful facial expressions. When shown pictures of someone who looks scared, children who reported having been spanked have a greater response in certain parts of the brain than children who were not. These areas stimulate the response to environmental signals, recognizing and responding to threats. If a child’s brain overreacts, behavioral problems can result.

“We have seen these changes in the same areas as more serious forms of abuse or domestic violence. This suggests that the difference is degree rather than type, ”Cuartas says. When it comes to a child’s brain, “everything is violence”.

This is an important finding because many parents don’t think spanking is violent, says Vincent J. Palusci, MD, pediatrician and newspaper editor. Child abuse. “We want to raise happy and healthy children. And many parents who use spanking do so with this goal.

Spanking in the United States

Around the world, 62 states and countries have banned corporal punishment. Although the United States does not have such protections, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have condemned the practice. Acceptance of spanking appears to be declining: The percentage of parents in this country who say they spank their children is trending down. In 1993, 50% of parents surveyed said they had done so, but by 2017 that number had fallen to 35%. Still far too many, say Cuartas and Palusci, but a promising trend.

“While we as parents wouldn’t want to hurt our children,” says Palusci, “we have to understand that spanking can be as bad as things we would never do.

Discipline vs punishment

For some parents, this may require a change of mind, a distinction between discipline and punishment. “Discipline changes behavior – it teaches positive behavior, empathy and essential social skills. But it’s different from punishment, ”Cuartas says. “It makes someone feel pain or shame. We need to start thinking of spanking as punishment.

This can be difficult, especially for adults who have been spanked themselves. They may believe that, as they turned out, spanking has to be good too. But the study doesn’t suggest that every child who has been spanked will have these difficulties – it just shows that they are happening, Cuartas says. “Compare that to smoking. We all know someone who smokes in good health, but that doesn’t mean smoking is good, ”he says. “Individual cases are not enough to understand whether certain experiences are good or bad.”

Palusci draws parallels with the advice pregnant women receive about taking medication: If it has not been specifically tested during pregnancy, no amount can be considered safe. “We don’t have studies to say how dangerous spanking is, so we have to think that any amount has that potential.”

WebMD Health News


Child development: “Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Threat Response in Children.”

Jorge Cuartas, PhD student, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Vincent J. Palusci, MD, professor of pediatrics, NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Ending Violence Against Children: “Progress”, “National Report for the United States”.

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Where We Are: Spanking.”

American Psychological Association: “Physical discipline is harmful and ineffective.”

JAMA Pediatrics: “Prevalence of spanking in US national samples of 35-year-old parents from 1993 to 2017.”

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