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Spanking children may impact their brain development, study finds

Experts worry about how this type of discipline affects kids’ mental health long-term

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Photo (c) PhotoAlto Sandro Di Carlo Darsa - Getty Images
Every parent takes a different approach when it comes to disciplining their children. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Harvard University found that those who use corporal punishment may impact their child’s brain development.

According to their findings, spanking affected kids’ brain development much in the same way as more intense types of violence. The researchers worry about how this practice could affect long-term decision-making abilities, emotional processing, and general mental health. 

“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,” said researcher Katie A. McLaughlin. “In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing.” 

How spanking can affect development

The researchers had nearly 150 kids between the ages of 10 and 11 participate in the study. While laying in an MRI machine, the children were shown pictures of faces that were either showing fearful or neutral expressions. The researchers analyzed what effect the different faces had on the children’s brain responses. 

The study revealed that seeing images of fearful faces activated more areas of the brain in children who were spanked versus those who weren’t. Additionally, more areas in the prefrontal cortex were activated in these children. This is important because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, social awareness, and personality expression. 

When comparing these results to those of children who had experienced more severe types of abuse, the researchers found that they were similar. 

“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 type.” 

What are the long-term risks?

The researchers explained that every child responds to discipline differently. While some kids who were spanked grow up to overcome this type of punishment, it’s important for parents to know what the potential risks are. 

The researchers hope that parents take these findings and veer away from this type of discipline because it’s clear that spanking children can have neurological consequences. 

“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,” said McLaughlin. “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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