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We Hit—“Spank”—Infants and Children

And we wonder where violence comes from?

Key points

  • Until we take seriously early development and feelings (affects), violence will not end.
  • Affects, cognition, and language can enhance understanding of the impact of physical punishment on children and the social fabric.
  • During heated squabbles, both parents and children may forget to use curiosity and thinking.
© vovan
Source: © vovan

It is clear there are many individual and societal variables that contribute to violence. But until we take seriously early development and feelings (affects)—and listen to what researchers and clinicians are telling us about the problems associated with physical punishment and how to understand and stop it—the violence will not end.

Physical Punishment: Affects, Cognition, and Language

The three information processing systems that are the focus of my concern—affect, cognition, and language—can enhance our understanding of the impact of physical punishment on individuals and on the social fabric. Let’s first take a look at the interaction of physical punishment and affects as it plays out in individuals—victims as well as caregivers—and then turn to society.


Negative affects are SOS signals. Excessive triggering of any negative affect can lead to distress and then anger. This is “stress,” “too muchness.” So what happens in physical punishment?

Physical punishment elicits and can solidify in the victim precisely the affects one does not want to take center stage with respect to development—distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. In addition, the child may identify with the actions and affects of their caregivers, and internalize them—the rage and violence. These negative affects and behaviors can then impair the child’s character structure, putting him or her at risk of becoming a bully and then passing the behavior patterns that result from the negative affects on to their own children (e.g., Holden 2020; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2015; Durrant & Ensom, 2012; Straus, et al, 2014).

How about the caregivers? The caregivers are often “stressed out”—tired, not enough time, too much to do—distressed, angry, and scared. They may be fearful of being seen as bad parents whose child is poorly behaved, or perhaps their child has done or said something provocative, or stirred up some difficult feelings from the parent’s own childhood.

But we need to go deeper into the processes. There are other reasons in a parent or caregiver for the anger underlying physical punishment. There is a love/hate ambivalence in human relationships, conscious or unconscious. That is, positive and negative affects are both involved in the most loving relationships—even in the mother-infant bond. Donald Winnicott, M.D., pointed this out dramatically in his iconic paper “Hate in the Counter-Transference” (1949). “We know about a mother’s love and we appreciate its reality and power. Let me give some of the reasons why a mother hates her baby…” (p. 73). Winnicott then lists 18 reasons why a mother may sometimes hate her baby. I will paraphrase a few of these.

  • The baby is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth.
  • The baby is an interference with her private life, a challenge to preoccupation.
  • To a greater or lesser extent, a mother feels that her own mother demands a baby, so that her baby is produced to placate her mother.
  • The baby hurts her nipples even by suckling, which is at first a chewing activity.
  • He/she is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave.
  • At first, the baby does not know at all what mother does or what she sacrifices for him.

This paper was followed by other works that highlight the aggression as well as the love that are felt simultaneously in parenting (e.g., Beiser, 1989; Rosenblitt, 2009; Young-Bruehl, 2012). Thus, the parent-child bond is loaded with intense affect, both positive and negative.

But that’s not all. There are two other factors that add to the mix.


Anger and other negative affects can be contagious. Excessive negative affects in either parent or child can lead to a contagious reaction, in which one reaction or remark by the child or parent leads to another in one or both of them. As that bounces back and forth between child and parent, it can escalate, and soon hitting and violence can ensue, the result of the contagion of negative affects. At the same time, positive affects may be impaired, e.g., enjoyment in the relationship. Perhaps most important, when this maelstrom of emotions erupts between parent and child, the capacity of both for interest (curiosity) can be compromised. Even after the incident is over, it may be difficult for either to be curious about what triggered the words or actions.


The second factor involves the affects of surprise, fear, and interest. Recall that any stimulus with a relatively sudden onset in the rate of neural firing will innately trigger surprise/startle; if the rate increases less rapidly, fear/terror is elicited; and if still less rapidly, interest/excitement occurs, as the brain begins to process the stimulus. Both the nature of the external stimulus as well as one’s temperament and experience are taken into account and combine to determine the density of neural firing. The result may be more fear-laden or a more rapid transition to interest.

The important issue here is the infant or young child’s otherness—differentness—from the adult. The infant and young child doesn’t look like or behave or communicate like the adult parent. He/she may startle, delight, scare, or enrage the adult, depending, for instance, on the adult’s temperament and how much experience the adult has with children. These differences may act as stimuli to the parent’s fear and anger and impulse to use physical punishment, as the parent tries to protect and socialize a child, all the while learning who he or she is and helping him/her develop.

The affect of interest, and the capacity for empathy, are keys to these challenges. The importance of responding with curiosity and empathy to differences will resonate throughout these discussions.


So in the midst of excessive negative affects for both victims and transgressors, how does the squabble play out? The caregiver’s tension regulation may be compromised at the moment, and the frustration and anger are too much and overwhelm the cognitive capacities to think things through.

The negative affects interfere with various aspects of cognition: thinking, problem-solving, self-reflection. The parent is then less able to understand what has happened and to sort things out and find non-violent solutions. The affects can overcome cognitive capacities and swamp any knowledge that physical punishment does more harm than good.


Language too becomes vulnerable. Anny Katan’s work (1961) shows the power of putting words to feelings at an early age. But in a heated squabble, affects such as distress, anger, or fear may overwhelm both parent and child’s capacity to employ cognition so that words can be used to calm the storm and parent and child can work towards understanding what happened or even agreeing to disagree. Both perpetrator and victim may be acting and speaking before they think—they are not able to reflect and calm themselves and use their cognition and curiosity to address the problem and carve out some solutions with words. The healthy use of language during conflict depends on the use of reasoned cognition.

A Brief Example

© Pruksachat
Source: © Pruksachat

Say a four-year-old boy is lying on the floor with some crayons, markers, and paper, while his father works nearby. The little boy begins drawing on the rug rather than on the paper. Dad ultimately sees this, and gets angry, telling his son to draw on the paper, not on the rug. But soon, the boy starts on the rug again. Father swats him, the boy howls, calls the father stupid or some such.

Mother comes in at this point and says “Don’t talk to your father like that!” The negative affects are being mobilized by everyone—distress, anger, fear, shame. More noise, tears. The contagion of the negative affects has been triggered. Mobilizing positive affects—e.g., curiosity—is no longer possible. Cognitive processes are not functioning well—what is happening here, what are the causes underneath the behavior? Rather than trying to use words to understand the feelings behind the actions, language just inflames matters. Silvan Tomkins commented about the power of anger in these situations: “The experience or the possibility of the feeling of anger can come to evoke utter humiliation or guilt, or anguish, or overwhelming terror” (1991, p. 225).

Alternative ways of dealing with these scenarios involve focusing on the positive aspects of affects, cognition, and language. For example, there is increasing evidence that focusing on positive affects of interest and enjoyment is more effective than negative affects in creating behavioral change (e.g., Holden, 2020; Durrant, 2016; Sege & Siegel, 2019).

With the youngster drawing on the rug, one will probably have better results by supporting his drawing in general, and highlighting the fact that he did not draw on the wall as well—rather than just criticizing the rug drawing. “You really like to draw, don’t you? I love that you do!” And, with a chuckle, “Well, thank you for not drawing on the wall also!” This approach may well open the door to being curious about and understanding what feelings were possibly behind the rug drawing—Not remembering that drawing had to stay on the paper? Or that it was intriguing to see what kind of marks and colors would be made on the rug?

And perhaps gradually the parent could begin to put words to the feelings and work things out. In this scenario, positive aspects of affects, cognition, and language are mobilized via interest and empathy—with subsequent behavioral change and more successful socialization (for more examples of these processes, see Durrant, 2016, and Holinger, 2003).


Beiser HR (1989). Fatherhood and the preference for a younger child. Annual of Psychoanalysis 17: 203-212.

Durrant JE, Ensom R (2012). Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. Canadian Medical Association Journal 184: 1373-1377.

Durrant, JE (2016). Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting. 4th ed. Stockholm: Save the Children.

Gershoff ET, Grogan-Kaylor A (2016, April 7). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.

Holden GW (2020). Why do parents hit their children? From cultural to unconscious determinants. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 73:10-29.

Holinger PC (2003). What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: The Nine Signals Infants Use to Express Their Feelings. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.

Rosenblitt DL (2009). Where do you want this killing done? An exploration of hatred of children. Annual of Psychoanalysis 36: 203-215.

Sege RD, Siegel BS; Council on Child Abuse and Neglect; Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2018). Effective discipline to raise healthy children. Pediatrics 142(6): e20183112–February 01, 2019.

Straus MA, Douglas EM, Medeiros RA (2014). The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime. New York: Routledge.

Winnicott DW (1949). Hate in the counter-transference. Int J Psychoanal 30: 69-74.

Young-Bruehl E (2012). Children: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. New Haven: Yale University Press.