The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) just updated its policy statement on corporal punishment, confirming what most already knew: that spanking increases aggression in young children in the long run and does nothing to promote responsibility and self-control. In fact, new evidence suggests that hitting kids and verbal punishments that include shaming and humiliation may affect normal brain development.
Here are some of the side effects associated with spanking:
corporal punishment of children younger than 18 months of age increases the likelihood of physical injury;
repeated use of corporal punishment may lead to aggressive behavior and altercations between the parent and child and may negatively affect the parent-child relationship;
corporal punishment is associated with increased aggression in preschool and school-aged children;
experiencing corporal punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future;
corporal punishment is associated with an increased risk of mental health disorders and cognition problems;
the risk of harsh punishment is increased when the family is experiencing stressors, such as family economic challenges, mental health problems, intimate partner violence, or substance abuse; and
spanking alone is associated with adverse outcomes, and these outcomes are similar to those in children who experience physical abuse.
None of this is especially new, but there is a growing body of evidence that confirms that corporal punishment and other forms of childhood trauma produce physiologic changes in the developing brain.
A history of parental corporal punishment and parental verbal abuse has been associated with changes in brain anatomy that can be visualized by using MRI. Specifically, young adults who had prolonged and repeated exposure to harsh corporal punishment had reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume and performance IQ. A 2016 review noted relationships between physical punishment and cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels reflect stress and have been associated with subsequent changes in brain architecture.
While many parents once considered spanking to be a socially acceptable form of discipline, most these days have come to understand that effective disciplinary strategies, appropriate to a child’s age and development, teach the child to regulate his or her own behavior; keep him or her from harm; enhance his or her cognitive, socio-emotional, and executive functioning skills; and reinforce desirable behavioral patterns.
The AAP has also published a guide for parents about how best to discipline children in a safe, healthy and productive way.