Exploring the history of leading neuroscience research on childhood spanking
and its Association with Negative Psychological Effects
By Karen Braveheart
Spanking research has increased in the past few decades, and the studies are unanimous in finding spanking harmful.
“Unfortunately for parents who hit, our research found clear and compelling evidence that physical punishment does not improve children’s behavior and instead makes it worse.” CNN
In 2000, the academy recommended that corporal punishment in schools be abolished in all states.
A 2009 study of 23 young adults who had repeated exposure to harsh corporal punishment found reduced gray matter volume in an area of the prefrontal cortex that is believed to play a crucial role in social cognition.
Those exposed to harsh punishment also had a lower performance I.Q. than that of a control group. New York Times
Instead they found, effective discipline involves practicing empathy and “understanding how to treat your child in different stages in development to teach them how to cool down when things do get explosive,” said Dr. Vincent J. Palusci, a child abuse pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at N.Y.U. Langone.
The academy’s parenting website, HealthyChildren.org, offers tips for disciplining younger and older children.
A 2013 study found that spanking could increase the risk of bad behavior, not deter it like parents who spank their kids may falsely believe.
Using a nationally representative sample, researchers interviewed 1,933 parents when their children were 3 years old and again at 5, asking whether and how often they were spanked.
More than half of the mothers and a third of the fathers had spanked their children, with the frequency declining slightly by age 5.
“While spanking does make the kid stop said the lead author, Micheal J. MacKenzie, Associate Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, it gives immediate feedback that it’s working. But the goal is to have kids regulate [their nervous system] themselves over time. And, in that spanking fails.” New York Times
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and the Divison of Violence Prevention published a tool kit for preventing child abuse and neglect that highlighted a need for legislation to end corporal punishment.
This study involved more than 160,000 children from multiple studies was published in the Journal of Family Psychology that measured the impact of childhood spanking on behavior and mental health.
The researchers found that spanking was associated with more than a dozen unwanted outcomes in adulthood, including low self-esteem, mental health issues, antisocial behavior and the tendency to blame others for their problems or actions. Discover Magazine
The Academy of Pediatrics, in its strongly worded 2018 policy statement, warned that parents should NOT spank their children because of the harmful effects of corporal punishment in the home.
Spanking is associated with increased aggression and makes it more likely that children will be defiant in the future.
Spanking alone is associated with outcomes similar to those of children who experience physical abuse, according to the Academy.
-American Academy of Pediatrics
The academy’s new policy, which published in Pediatrics, updates 20-year-old guidance on discipline that recommended parents be “encouraged” not to spank. The organization’s latest statement stems from a body of research that wasn’t available two decades ago.
The group, which represented about 67,000 doctors, also recommended that pediatricians advise parents against the use of spanking, which it defined as “open handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior,” and also said to avoid using nonphysical punishment that is humiliating, scary or threatening.
“One of the most important relationships we all have is the relationship between ourselves and our parents, and it makes sense to eliminate or limit fear and violence in that loving relationship,” said Dr. Robert D. Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center and the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston, and one of the authors of the statement.
The study, Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children published in the National Institute of Mental Health Society for Research on Child Development and in the Child Development Journal examined spanked children’s brain functioning in response to perceived environmental threats compared to children who were not spanked.
"Their findings showed that spanked children exhibited greater brain response, suggesting that spanking can alter children’s brain function in similar ways to severe forms of maltreatment."
Children who were spanked exhibited greater activation in multiple regions of the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), including dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial PFC, bilateral frontal pole, and left middle frontal gyrus in response to fearful relative to neutral faces compared to children who were not spanked.
These findings suggest that spanking may alter neural responses to environmental threats in a manner similar to more severe forms of maltreatment.
As of 2024, 65 Countries have baned spanking
Spanking remains common around the world, despite clear neuroscience proof linking corporal punishment to detrimental child outcomes. EndCorporalPunishment.org
65 countries have full prohibition of corporal punishment
They are: Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Aruba, Austria,. Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cabo Verde, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, . Greece, Greenland, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, South Sudan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Wales (part of the United Kingdom), Zambia, and Zimbabwe
In 2024, where does the US stand?
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Mental Health Association suggest non-violent discipline as an alternative to corporal punishment. WebMD
Many states have banned corporal punishment in public schools; however, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it is still permitted in 19 states.
In 11 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas—corporal punishment is allowed for all students from the time they start preschool until they graduate high school.
In another four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee—corporal punishment is only banned for students with disabilities.
In three states—Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming—corporal punishment is allowed but there has been no reported use. In North Carolina, corporal punishment has been banned in some school districts but not statewide.
Even if a state allows corporal punishment, an individual school district can ban the practice. For example, school districts in Houston, Memphis and Atlanta ban corporal punishment even though it is legal in those states.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas—account for 70% of reported incidents of corporal punishment.
In private schools, corporal punishment is legal in 48 states. New Jersey banned corporal punishment from all public and private schools in 1867 and Iowa did so in 1989. NJSFB.org
For more information, read this blog on what shame does to a child.
"A loving moment lasts a lifetime. So does a traumatic one. Which one do you choose for your child?"
- Step 1- Stop spanking. It starts with you. Do you have a real desire to learn a better way? It starts with you and your choice
- Step 2- Take an honest look at yourself. Why am I spanking my kid in this situation? Is the true answer because I want them to stop a particular behavior or is it because I got so stressed out and angry that I hit my kid
- Step 3- If you feel bad that you’ve spanked your kid in the past, you can make a new choice in this moment. We all are powerful human beings that have the power of free will. But, you must make a choice to stop spanking and stick with it forever for real change to happen
- Step 4- Since shame was created through an emotional experience originating in a social encounter, or was internalized from messages we received from others about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable
Note: I am not a trained psychotherapist.
If spanking doesn’t work, then what does? Unconditional love!
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About the Author Karen Braveheart, CEO
Karen Braveheart is an attorney turned entrepreneur and mom of three who deeply cares about making the world a happier place by changing how we raise our children. Learn more