Robin Berman, M.D.

Robin Berman MD

Permission to Parent

Anger

Hitting Begets Hitting, Aggression Begets Aggression

Why hitting is not your highest parenting choice.

Posted Oct 30, 2014

The most mind-blowing part of the Adrian Peterson child-beating case is how many people in this country still believe hitting children is ok. The idea of hitting children to “teach a lesson” is deeply rooted in our history and culture, but it is ludicrous, archaic and needs to be excised.

There has never been a single study showing any long-term positive effects of corporal punishment. Then why are Americans still hitting their kids?

My most vivid memories of working in the ER during medical school were of seeing shaken baby syndrome, or a mother whose child was not listening so she scalded her in hot water, to a dad whose escalating attempts to discipline his child started with the humiliating act of pulling down his son’s pants to give him a ”good slap,” and ended with a belt which landed the child in the ER with deep lacerations to the back and buttocks. Some ask where is the line between disciplining with a slap and harsh physical punishment, but there is no line - all violence to children, whether mild or severe, is not only morally wrong, it is your lowest possible parenting choice.

The litany of long-term damage from being hit –even when the hitting isn’t as extreme as alleged in the Peterson case – is profound. This method of “teaching” simply perpetuates the cycle of violence through generations. When parents model out-of-control behavior, that’s what children learn, because that is what they’ve been taught.

But it goes even deeper than being a bad role model. The impact of being hit gets wired into the structure of a developing brain. Recent neuro-imaging studies have shown us that consistent corporal punishment decreases gray matter.

In the frontal cortex, the brain thinks ahead, problem-solves, and makes decisions. Chronic abuse stunts the growth of these critical skills. When you get scared, your brain goes into fight or flight mode. Your thinking brain is hijacked by your more primitive brain, thus no real learning can take place.

So parents who think they are “teaching their kids a lesson” by spanking are actually stunting their optimal neurologic growth.

One of our most important jobs as parents is to help our children regulate their emotions, and they do this by mirroring ours. When children get upset, parents should help them work through and soothe their agitation, not inflame it. So much psychopathology stems from adults not being able to control/manage their feelings. Think of the agitated angry state that a parent has to be in to lash out at his child with physical force. What are we teaching about how to solve conflicts? This is not a legacy you want to pass down. Not surprisingly, research shows that kids who are repeatedly hit become more likely to be physically aggressive and increasingly vulnerable to substance abuse and mental health issues. 

We are trying to form a loving bond with our kids, not sever one, but the minute a parent raises a hand in anger, even if it’s supposed to “teach a lesson”, we are eroding the very bond we want to build. The main thing children learn from physical punishment is that they cannot trust or depend on their parents. They feel unworthy and ashamed.

I once treated a patient who was traumatized by her mother’s unpredictable outbursts of rage and violence. “Sometimes my mom was a mom, sometimes a monster,” she said. “I guess I was raised by a momster.” We as parents are supposed to be slaying the metaphorical monsters, not embodying them. Those who are raised by “momsters” carry the shame and betrayal of being hurt by the people who are supposed to love them the most.

Sadly, it also makes them more likely to repeat the cycle. In times of stress, we revert back to the way we were parented. Peterson said he did what he did because that was how he was raised. Just because hitting has been going on for centuries does not make it right - nor does it make it a valid teaching tool. It leaves physical, neurological and emotional scars and it has to stop.

Those who grew up being hit can still end this destructive legacy. Parents will have to discipline themselves before they discipline their child. Put some space between what triggers you and how you respond so that you don’t react with anger and violence.

Some say hitting is ok if it does not leave a mark, but it leaves huge marks that span generations. We can be the cycle-breakers.

Robin Berman, MD, is a psychiatrist, associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and author of “Permission to Parent: How to Raise your Child with Love and Limits.”