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This Is a Child's Brain on Spanking

Novel research identifies the neural changes associated with spanking.

Key points

  • Research shows that spanking not only changes a child’s behavior for the worse but also alters normal brain function.
  • Experts of various ilk recommend against spanking.
  • Constructive alternatives to spanking include positive reinforcement for desired behaviors and the use of time-outs.

We’ve all been there. Helplessly watching as a parent berates and then spanks their child in public. Unless the violence escalates, it’s still legal for parents to lightly spank their children in the United States. But what’s legal isn’t always right.

Various studies have demonstrated that physical punishment such as spanking and other methods of inflicting pain can result in antisocial behavior, aggression, mental health problems, and physical injury to the child. Although the acceptance of physical punishment has decreased ever since the 1960s, about half of American parents still engage in spanking their children, with one-third spanking in the past week.

In addition to various biological, psychological, and social effects, spanking can alter brain function, according to a recent study published in Child Development. Here’s a look at this study, along with some suggested alternatives to spanking.

Neural impact of spanking

In the current study, researchers assessed the correlation between spanking and neural responses to fearful faces with scary expressions, which served as a proxy for environmental threat.

Cathy Yeulet/123RF
Source: Cathy Yeulet/123RF

The authors found that compared with children who weren’t spanked (n=107), children who were spanked (n=40) exhibited heightened stimulation in various regions of the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial PFC, bilateral frontal pole, and left middle frontal gyrus. These changes were induced by fearful versus neutral faces. No difference was observed between both groups when viewing neutral faces with benign expressions.

These functional MRI (fMRI) changes in the salience network were similar to findings noted in other studies examining the reactions of children to other forms of abuse and mistreatment including sexual abuse, physical and psychological maltreatment, the witness of domestic violence, and exposure to community violence. Other changes were observed in areas of the brain responsible for the regulation of emotional responses, such as cognitive reappraisal, as well as mentalizing, autobiographical memory, and other facets of social information.

Intriguingly, exposure to spanking was unrelated to changes of the amygdala or the anterior insula, or findings that are often observed in studies of other forms of violence exposure in children.

The case versus spanking

In light of their findings, the authors suggested that parents lay off spanking when disciplining their children.

“The United States and other countries around the world should discourage the use of corporal punishment through public education and legal prohibition, following the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the robust scientific evidence on the harmful consequences of corporal punishment,” the authors wrote.

In addition to the United Nations, various other organizations have rallied against spanking or other forms of corporal punishment, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, spanking doesn’t work—except to temporarily stop a behavior out of fear of getting hit. Instead, spanking and other forms of violence lead to further escalation by parents. Moreover, parents who were spanked when they were young grew up to defend and promote the practice by spanking their own children—perpetuating a vicious circle of abuse.

In a statement, the APA wrote, “Children need love, support, and firm guidance. Parents need to be encouraged to use positive parenting approaches. Showing warmth, having open communication, employing limit-setting, and rewarding positive behavior are some of the parenting behaviors necessary for children to thrive.”

Alternatives to spanking

Instead of spanking or hitting, parents can use different skills to punish kids.

First, when a child behaves well, effusive praise and positive reinforcement should be used to further encourage desired behaviors.

Second, toddlers can be told to intentionally throw a tantrum sans a trigger. The twist is that the pretend tantrum should not include hitting or kicking. In time, having a child control a tantrum without hitting or kicking will reduce the severity of real tantrums.

Third, parents should remain calm during a child’s tantrum, as well as using time-outs and consistent discipline plans that provide rewards for good behavior.

A variety of parenting classes are available for those interested in learning more, including the Adults and Children Together Against Violence program.

On a final note, it’s tempting to think that laws against spanking by parents could stop the practice. In fact, 30 countries have passed such legislation. In reality, however, these laws are not usually used to criminalize parents, but rather to educate them.

More from Naveed Saleh M.D., M.S.
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