Can physical discipline affect a child’s brain?

This article was originally written by Rosie McCall and published on the IFL Science Facebook site. 20 SEP 2018.

Worldwide, there are only 60 countries that ban the use of corporal punishment on children in the home and at school. These include South Africa. We are aware that this legislation is largely unpopular.  Many families and teachers still approve of spanking children as a form of discipline. Mention of spanking usually brings a response along the lines of “well, we were all spanked and we turned out OK.”

However, the opinion – at least from those at the UK Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) – is that regular spanking is not only ineffective (there are few reliable studies to show it dissuades future bad behaviour) but it can damage the health of children and adolescents. This view is supported by some research.

A review of studies, involving 75 papers over a 50-year period and more than 160,000 children, found that spanking is associated with 13 out of 17 measured outcomes, including poorer mental health in childhood and adulthood and higher levels of antisocial behaviour.

But can we believe these results?  The American College of Pediatricians released a statement in response to the research, calling the analysis “woefully inadequate” and criticizing the researchers for relying too much on correlational data and ignoring “the beneficial findings of studies that have investigated appropriate ways of spanking in disciplinary situations traditionally considered appropriate.”

Nonetheless, young brains are especially pliable and these are just a handful of the ways spanking can have an effect. 

Developmental delays:

An admittedly small-scale study published in the Annals of Global Heath earlier this year on 74 pairs of caregivers and their children found that spanking (and scolding, for that matter) was linked to developmental delays. In fact, children regularly spanked were five times as likely to experience language delays, though whether the spanking caused the language delays or vice versa (or whether there’s a third factor involved somewhere) is a little trickier to determine, so the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. 

Reduced grey matter:

A 2009 study found that corporal violence was also associated with a significant reduction in grey matter, a tissue responsible for translating the sensory information we receive into chemical data our brain can understand. It is involved in everything from hearing to speaking to our emotions and self-control. But those who had been regularly spanked as children showed a 19.1 percent decrease in gray matter volume in the right medial frontal gyrus, 14.5 percent in the left medial frontal gyrus, and 16.9 percent in the right anterior cingulate gyrus. 

Poorer mental health:

A 2012 study involving 34,600 US adults found that 2 to 7 percent of mental health disorders could be attributed to corporal punishment, specifically major depression, anxiety, and paranoia. Six percent of respondents reported being “pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit” by their parents and those that had were 59 percent more likely to be alcohol dependent, 41 percent more likely to have depression, and 24 percent more likely to have a panic disorder (again this is an association, not a cause-effect link). Which leads to…

Booze, drugs, and suicide:

In a 2017 study, researchers surveyed more than 8,000 adults aged 19 to 97 about their childhood history with spanking – the results were shocking. Those who had been spanked were 23 percent more likely to engage in moderate or heavy drinking and 32 percent more likely to use street drugs. What’s more, they were 37 percent more likely to attempt suicide.

Violent relationships:

It is not exactly surprising that children exposed to violence will go on to return the favour in adulthood, whether that is spanking their own children or hitting their partner. In a 2017 study, researchers interviewed 758 young adults and asked them how often they were spanked, slapped, or struck growing up as a physical form of punishment. They discovered that those that had were 29 percent more likely to commit violence when they were in a relationship. They were also more likely to be the receiver of violence. But it’s not just romantic relationships – a meta-analysis of 36 studies on corporal punishment found that parents who spanked their child were three times as likely to report their children as having aggressive behaviour later on.



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