Spanking Your Child May Affect Their Brain Development, According To New Study

Spanking Your Child May Affect Their Brain Development, According To New Study

The kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces.

Representative Image Source: Getty Images/FPG

When it comes to disciplining your child when they misbehave, there are many ways to go about it. A popular method involves spanking. However, this is not a universal punishment as people are divided about it. Some believe that this works and helps their child grow into a well-behaved adult. And there are others who believe that this could damage their child well into adulthood.  However, the latter seems to be gaining popularity as a group of researchers from Harvard have determined that spanking only creates more problems than it can solve. According to Neuroscience, "Corporal punishment may detrimentally harm brain development, a new study reports. Previous studies have revealed links between spanking and psychological problems, including depression and anxiety. The new study found children who experienced spanking as a form of punishment demonstrated greater activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex in response to fearful stimuli."



Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development noted that people don't equate spanking with violence leading to a number of mental problems for children. She said, "We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence."



Therefore, the study focussed on if "there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level in terms of how the brain is developing." According to the authors, corporal punishment has been linked to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and substance use disorders. McLaughlin and her colleagues — Jorge Cuartas, first author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and David Weissman, a postdoctoral fellow in the Stress & Development Lab —analyzed a large group of kids between the ages of 3-11. They studied147 children around ages 10 and 11 who had been spanked, except those who had experienced more severe forms of violence.



To get results, the children's brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces on a computer screen. A scanner captured the child’s brain activity in response to these different faces and then analyzed between those who had and hadn't been spanked. "On average, across the entire sample, fearful faces elicited greater activation than neutral faces in many regions throughout the brain … and children who were spanked demonstrated greater activation in multiple regions of PFC to fearful relative to neutral faces than children who were never spanked," the researchers wrote. In contrast, "There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked."



The study revealed that the fear of being spanked was similar to being abused, suggesting that "while we might not conceptualize corporal punishment to be a form of violence, in terms of how a child’s brain responds, it’s not all that different than abuse," said McLaughlin. "It’s more a difference of degree than of type." Researchers believe this is the first step towards finding out just exactly how spanking a child affects their brain. 



"These findings aligned with the predictions from other perspectives on the potential consequences of corporal punishment," studied in fields such as developmental psychology and social work, said Cuartas. "By identifying certain neural pathways that explain the consequences of corporal punishment in the brain, we can further suggest that this kind of punishment might be detrimental to children and we have more avenues to explore it." Having said that, the researchers concluded that these findings are not exactly applicable to each individual's lives, it does matter from person to person. 


" It’s important to consider that corporal punishment does not impact every child the same way, and children can be resilient if exposed to potential adversities," said Cuartas. "But the important message is that corporal punishment is a risk that can increase potential problems for children’s development, and following a precautionary principle, parents and policymakers should work toward trying to reduce its prevalence." McLaughlin added, "We’re hopeful that this finding may encourage families not to use this strategy, and that it may open people’s eyes to the potential negative consequences of corporal punishment in ways they haven’t thought of before."





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