Spanking Affects Kids’ Brains and Behaviors

Parent's hand spanks childTwo-thirds of parents admit to spanking their children, and 81% of parents say that it’s sometimes acceptable to spank children. Yet study after study has shown the deleterious effects of spanking. A recent CNN article highlighted some of the worst effects of spanking, and parenting experts continue to emphasize that spanking is not an appropriate discipline strategy.

Spanking and the Child’s Brain

Severe spankings may undermine brain development. One recent study, for example, found that children who were frequently spanked, often with objects like belts, at least 12 times a year for 3 years or more had less gray matter in areas of the brain linked to mental health challenges and addiction. Another study found that children who were spanked by their mothers had fewer cognitive skills compared to other children. Researchers suggest this may be because children who are spanked don’t learn to control their own behavior. Rather than learning impulse control and other important skills, these children are perpetually afraid of being punished by external authorities and may to defer to authority as a result. 

Other Negative Effects of Spanking

“Many parents spank when they are angry, which essentially teaches children that it’s okay for them to hit if they are large enough and angry enough,” says Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, a GoodTherapy.org parenting Topic Expert. Research backs Malonai up, with studies repeatedly finding that spanking increases aggression and antisocial behavior. One study found that children were 50% more likely to be aggressive by age 5 if they had been spanked more than twice in the previous month. Another study found a link between spanking and adult criminal behavior.

Parents who spank their children argue that some behaviors are so bad that spanking is the only way to teach children to avoid them. Malonai says this is wrong. “If your goal is to change behavior, spanking doesn’t work. In general, punishment has a very low effectiveness rate.” In addition to its ineffectiveness, Malonai points out that spanking can be damaging to the relationship between parent and child, “because spanking may teach a child to be afraid of his or her parent, which can reduce trust and sense of safety.” This lack of trust and safety in childhood influences the attachment style that the child develops, thus influencing his or her relationship patterns throughout life.

Parents who remain unconvinced of the connection between spanking and aggression should note that there are many other reasons not to spank. A 2013 study that found that children who were spanked by their fathers were more likely to have language and vocabulary problems. The same study also found that spanked children were more likely to behave defiantly.

In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child moved to end spanking around the world, calling spanking violence against children.

References:

  1. Castillo, M. (2013, October 21). Spanking young kids linked to aggressive behavior, language woes by age 9. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/spanking-young-kids-linked-to-aggressive-behavior-language-woes-by-age-9/
  2. Kovac, S. (2014, July 23). Spanking the gray matter out of our kids. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/23/health/effects-spanking-brain/
  3. Park, A. (2010, May 03). The long-term effects of spanking. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0%2C9171%2C1983895%2C00.html
  4. Smith, B. L. (2012, April). The case against spanking. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx
  5. Spanking children slows cognitive development and increases risk of criminal behavior, expert says. (2013, December 11). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131211103958.htm
  6. Tomoda, A., Suzuki, H., Rabi, K., Sheu, Y., Polcari, A., & Teicher, M. H. (2009). Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment. NeuroImage, 47, T66-T71. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.03.005

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  • Carlos

    Carlos

    July 31st, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    Do you think the latest (last 20 years) therapist and psychologist positions against spanking correlate to the current lack of discipline , disrespect and disobedience form kids in school? My wife and my mom are teachers and them and their friends have hundreds of stories of behavioral issues that we never saw or even imagined when we were kids (back when spanking was the common norm).
    Thanks

  • Alexis

    Alexis

    June 28th, 2016 at 3:42 PM

    I was a child in a all christian family and I was spanked mainly by my father (with a leather belt) never my mother, and that made me fear my father so much, sometimes he wondered why I wouldn’t hug him or talk to him as much as my mother. I was so uncomfortable being next to him and when I was brought into a conversation with him I would literally sweat so much. I was so afraid to even do anything, I reacted in ways I didn’t even know were bad. I had no friends and I sat inside the house all day watching t.v and eating away my pains. And my mother never helped she just accepted my behavior and every time my father questioned she would just say it’s normal. And in time I started to hate my father and wanted to disobey him in any way I could without getting punished so I took to secretly reading pornographic literature, I was never caught and by the time I reached the age of eighteen I quickly moved out and went to college. I still had no friends and to top it all off I started having panic attacks. Right then I knew I had to seek help, so I started seeing a therapist. She was helping me and still is but I still have the emotional scars of being spanked.

    All I know is don’t spank your child.

  • Kell

    Kell

    July 31st, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    I have never quite understood the reasoning behind spanking.

    You are going to teach a child that what they have done os wrong by hitting them?

    Sorry but this makes no sense to me.

  • Nadine B.

    Nadine B.

    July 31st, 2014 at 12:57 PM

    Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue. While spanking is called controversial, it shouldn’t be. Its harmfulness and ineffectiveness are well established in the literature and many countries have banned it in schools and other settings for children, including homes. Children have spoken out against its use and provide non-violent alternatives in the book, This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You: In Words and Pictures Children Share How Spanking Hurts and What To Do Instead.

  • Cat

    Cat

    July 31st, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    In reply to Carlos:

    My sister and I were exceedingly well-behaved children, so much so that other people at our church would approach our mother to ask what she did. Well, she spanked us quite viciously – I clearly remember having trouble sitting down comfortably on a toilet seat because of all the welts down the back of my legs.

    And now that my sister and I are adults, we both have major depression and anxiety, and I am currently disabled due to fibromyalgia as well – all conditions where childhood trauma is implicated. My sister also has a lot of trouble with assertiveness and sometimes critical thinking. We both had problems with relationships due to anxious attachment as well. And we both have had lackluster careers given our educational attainment (pushed through by our parents) because we have trouble figuring out what we want to do after a childhood of decisions made for us, partly enforced by spanking.

    Moral of the story? Authoritarian parenting with spanking leads to short term benefits in quiescent kids, but long term suffering in stunted, sick adults. Maybe a bit of wiggling and squirming is better than a lifetime of mental illness and misery.

  • Zawn Villines

    Zawn Villines

    July 31st, 2014 at 1:55 PM

    Hi Carlos,

    I think there are probably a lot of reasons that kids are struggling in school. But one reason may actually be that they’re being spanked. If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that the majority of parents spank their children. Since many studies have shown that spanking leads to bad behavior, it could be that spanking is to blame for the sorts of problems your wife sees.

  • Benji

    Benji

    August 2nd, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    I was spanked and turned out okay.
    I am not defiant, I am not aggressive, I am not rude.
    But you know what I am?
    I was a pretty well behaved kid who learned my manners and now have respect for other people and don’t think that the world has to revolve around me.
    I understand that there are numerous ways to discipline a child that can be effective but I think that when employed properly spanking can be that too.

  • cara

    cara

    August 4th, 2014 at 4:08 PM

    Personally think that it is terrible to spank a child and that it teaches no valuable life lesson to them as a result.

  • russ m

    russ m

    August 5th, 2014 at 3:24 PM

    So Cara how would you choose to discipline a child where nothing else seems to faze them?
    There are some kids where nothing else that you say or do seems to get through to them but you have to be able to show them a right way to behave and worng way to behave.
    So I ask- if you have tried everything else possible then what else is there to do?

  • Olivia

    Olivia

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:28 PM

    I think that as children get older, an environement where spanking and physical discipline is the norm will only make most children more defiant.
    It ia as if they will dare you to bring what you’ve got so that they can do what they can to show you that you are not hurting them.
    I do not want to see any child have to live like this and to think that parents think that they are doing the right thing for their kids but really this is giving them all the wrong lessons.
    This is not acceptable parenting to me. I am sorry, it just isn’t and if thsi is all you have to fall back on then I do feel sorry for your child because he is probably going to end up with a whole lot more problems as a result of this behavior on your part.

  • Thanh

    Thanh

    March 21st, 2015 at 11:37 AM

    Many Asian kids like Korean and Vietnamese culture parents spanks their kids and they turn out to be so smart. They all graduated with. Doctor or became lawyers so i disagree with spanking will affect their mental health =\ like reducing the gray matter in their brain. On the other hand i agree that those kids who were spanked will become withdrawal from society. They will become anti-social…i hope my experience will help all parents understand. I am not encourage parents to be abusive though spank to teach them to become good person not abusive kids

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