Corporal consequences: Spanking can alter children’s brain development

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Countless adults can still vividly recall being spanked as a child after disobeying mom or disrespecting dad. Many still consider spanking the lightest of corporal punishments and a viable parenting tactic. Interesting new research from Harvard University, however, now suggests that the act of spanking may hold long-term neural consequences.

Importantly, study authors add that spanking appears to affect a child’s brain development in similar ways to more severe forms of violence. This latest work builds on prior findings that had noted heightened activity in certain regions of the brains of children who had experienced abuse in response to threat cues.

Kids who had been spanked displayed a greater neural response in multiple areas of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), including within regions making up the salience network. Those brain areas are responsible for responding to environmental cues that tend to be consequential, like a threat, and may affect decision-making and processing of various situations.

“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,” says senior researcher Katie A. McLaughlin, an associate professor of the social sciences and director of Harvard’s Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, in a media release. “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 brains of children who have been spanked differ from others

Study authors explain that corporal punishment has been linked to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and substance use disorders in the past. Recent projects even show that roughly half of all studied U.S. parents reported spanking their kids within the past year. One-third of parents reported doing so in just the prior week. All that being said, the relationship between spanking and brain activity had not been analyzed until this study.

The research team analyzed data provided by a large study of children between ages three and 11. Researchers focused on a sub-cohort of 147 children around ages 10 and 11 who had been spanked, except for any children who had also experienced more severe forms of violence.

Each participating child lay in an MRI machine and watched a computer screen that showed various images of actors making “fearful” and “neutral” faces. While that was happening, a scanner captured the child’s brain activity in response to each face. Study authors used that data to determine if the faces invoked different patterns of brain activity in children who had been spanked compared to those who had not.

“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,” study authors write.

Conversely, “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.”

These findings are similar to those of studies focusing on children who had experienced severe violence, suggesting that “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,” Prof. McLaughlin explains. “It’s more a difference of degree than of type.”

Encouraging parents to avoid corporal punishment

Study authors believe this work is an important first step towards further interdisciplinary analysis of spanking’s impact on the brain development and lived experiences of children.

“These findings aligned with the predictions from other perspectives on the potential consequences of corporal punishment,” comments Jorge Cuartas, first author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “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.”

To be clear, the research team stresses that their work does not apply to the individual life of each and every child.

“It’s important to consider that corporal punishment does not impact every child the same way, and children can be resilient if exposed to potential adversities,” Cuartas adds. “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.”

“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,” Prof. McLaughlin concludes.

The study is published in Child Development.