Spanking Can Affect Kids' Brain Development The Same Way As Severe Abuse Does, Says Harvard Study

Spanking Can Affect Kids' Brain Development The Same Way As Severe Abuse Does, Says Harvard Study

The aim of researchers was to open parents' eyes to the negative affects of corporal punishment.

For parents, disciplining a child is a delicate balance of being firm without being too hard on them. But with kids, there's no saying when one can lose their cool. Parenting is probably one of the most difficult jobs in the world and spanking a kid to correct their behavior is considered acceptable in some parts of the world. But before anyone decides to raise their hands at their children, know that its effects can be the same as when they are subjected to severe abuse and violence. A recent study by researchers at Harvard has highlighted this. Katie A. McLaughlin, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at the university and senior study researcher, told Harvard Gazette "...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.”



She added, “It’s more a difference of degree than of type.” Researchers conducted the study on a large group of children between 3 and 11 years old. Of this, they particularly focused on 147 children around the ages of 10 and 11 who had been subjected to corporal punishment as a way of disciplining. These kids were then asked to undergo an MRI scan of their brains while watching images of actors making “fearful” and “neutral” faces. The scanner captured the children's brain activity when they saw the images. These pictures were then analyzed to determine whether the faces sparked different patterns of brain activity in children who were spanked as compared to those who were not. “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," said McLaughlin.



"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," added McLaughlin who is also the director of the institute's Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology. "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,” said the study that was published in the journal Child Development. It further highlighted that half of the parents in the US reported spanking their children last year. 



The study has, however, made it clear that the findings are not new and only confirms the findings in the existing literature. However, the researchers aim for their study to become the first step towards an interdisciplinary analysis of the harmful potentials that spanking has on children's development. "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," it added. Jorge Cuartas, a Ph.D. student in education at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a study author, said, "These findings aligned with the predictions from other perspectives on the potential consequences of corporal punishment."



He said further, "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.” Researchers however caution that corporal punishment may impact an individual child in a different way. But Cuartas added, “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 said she was hopeful the study would "open people’s eyes to the potential negative consequences of corporal punishment in ways they haven’t thought of before.”

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