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.”