Usable Knowledge The Effect of Spanking on the Brain Spanking found to impact children's brain response, leading to lasting consequences Posted April 13, 2021 By Jill Anderson Cognitive Development Counseling and Mental Health Early Education Families and Community Human Development Research has long underscored the negative effects of spanking on children’s social-emotional development, self-regulation, and cognitive development, but new research, published this month, shows that spanking alters children’s brain response in ways similar to severe maltreatment and increases perception of threats. “The findings are one of the last pieces of evidence to make sense of the research of the last 50 years on spanking,” says researcher Jorge Cuartas, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who coauthored the study with Katie McLaughlin, professor at the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. “We know that spanking is not effective and can be harmful for children’s development and increases the chance of mental health issues. With these new findings, we also know it can have potential impact on brain development, changing biology, and leading to lasting consequences.” The study, “Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children,” published in Child Development, 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. The study looked at 147 children, including some who were spanked and some who were not spanked in the beginning years of their lives, to see potential differences to the brain. By using MRI assessment, researchers observed changes in brain response while the children viewed a series of images featuring facial expressions that indicate emotional response, such as frowns and smiles. They found that children who had been spanked had a higher activity response in the areas of their brain that regulate these emotional responses and detect threats — even to facial expressions that most would consider non-threatening. Perhaps surprisingly, says Cuartas, spanking elicits a similar response in children’s brains to more threatening experiences like sexual abuse. “You see the same reactions in the brain,” Cuartas explains. “Those consequences potentially affect the brain in areas often engaged in emotional regulation and threat detection, so that children can respond quickly to threats in the environment.” “Preschool and school age children — and even adults — [who have been] spanked are more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders or have more difficulties engaging positively in schools and skills of regulation, which we know are necessary to be successful in educational settings." While we tend to think of spanking as an “outdated” practice, it’s still an incredibly common form of discipline used among parents and even in schools — despite the research linking the practice to negative results. There are only 62 countries — not including the United States — with a ban on corporal punishment, Cuartas points out. Additionally, nearly one-third of parents in the United States report spanking their children every week, often to detrimental effects and implications.“Preschool and school age children — and even adults — [who have been] spanked are more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders or have more difficulties engaging positively in schools and skills of regulation, which we know are necessary to be successful in educational settings,” he says. Cuartas offers three steps educators and caregivers can take toward eradicating spanking in schools and homes:Recognize that spanking is not an effective tool of discipline in the classroom or at home. When parents or teachers use spanking, it doesn’t lead to the desired outcomes in discipline or teach children how to regulate their emotions. “We know there are better techniques, like positive discipline, that are more effective,” Cuartas says. “The most important tool out there is explaining to children certain behaviors that are wrong and what type of behavior to seek through an example.”Work to eradicate forms of violence in the home and school environment by pushing for policies that can make corporal punishment illegal in the world. As Cuartas notes, the issue of corporal punishment is still widely accepted in the world and even in the United States.Provide better support to families. Research shows that parents aren’t always to blame for using corporal punishment. Cuartas points to many different reasons why parents rely on spanking, including aspects like what they learned growing up, emotional factors like stress, and different familial circumstances. He notes that it’s important to take care of the caregivers and offer tools that will help families and caregivers find other ways of discipline. Additional Resources: Tips on positive parenting from the CDC Unicef's "How to Discipline Positively" The Consequences of Corporal Punishment Usable Knowledge Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities Explore All Articles Related Articles Usable Knowledge Does Nature or Nurture Determine Musical Ability? New study is the first to find brain structure in infants predicting musical aptitude Usable Knowledge Tracing the Roots of Language and Literacy A new study emphasizes the importance of the first year of life for long term language and literacy development. Education Now Hope and Resilience in Childhood A discussion of concrete ways to support children and adults in developing their capacities to weather the challenges brought on by the pandemic.