How Spanking Changes Your Child’s Brain

Spanking is a major hot-button topic these days. Technically, spanking is legal in all 50 states as long as it’s “reasonable discipline” and does not cause the child injury. Some people come from the mindset of “I was spanked as a child, and I turned out okay,” while others feel it borders on child abuse. 

Aside from a couple of swats for truly atrocious behavior, I was not spanked as a child. Generally speaking, my parents opted for taking away privileges or adding chores when I misbehaved. There was a time (before I really started studying child development) that I wanted to believe that spanking was no big deal. It’s what generations upon generations of parents did. It couldn’t be as damaging as so many people made it out to be.

But after I started really looking at the research and learning more about how children’s brains develop in those early years, I have taken a much firmer stance on this issue. Here are some of the unexpected ways that spanking affects the development of young children:

how spanking changes your child's brain

Spanking damages attachment bonds

In order for a newborn baby to thrive, they need to have one secure attachment with an adult. This attachment, whether it be a parent, grandparent, or other caregiver, is the basis of all future learning and relationships for the child. The connection to their “safe person” is what makes a child feel secure enough to explore the world.

When a child is spanked, their attachment bond is damaged. The one person who is supposed to be safe, steady and dependable is now seen as unpredictable and unstable. This can lead to an insecure attachment relationship, which can be an indicator of future problem behaviors and conditions.

Spanking encourages children to be impulsive

We spend hours upon hours teaching young children to avoid aggression by “using their words,” “taking deep breaths,” or “taking a break.” We reprimand children for hitting or kicking out of  frustration or anger. We teach them that there is a better way to solve conflicts.

But the minute that a parent spanks their child out of anger or frustration, all of this teaching goes out the window. The parent has just taught the child that it’s alright to use physical force and act on your impulses. If we teach our children that it’s never okay to hit, then the rule must apply to us as well.

I know what you might be thinking… but what if I don’t spank my child out of impulsivity. I am always calm and collected.

If this is you, I urge you to think about how spanking is teaching your child to not repeat their actions in the future. If the answer is “because they don’t want another spanking,” then skip down to the section below, Spanking creates fear and intimidation.

Spanking teaches children to abuse their power

It is against the law to strike your co-worker, neighbor, or wife, and yet it is legal to hit your child. By spanking your child, you are exercising your power of authority over them. You are trying to send the message that you are big and they are small. But making your child feel small and powerless always backfires in ways you wouldn’t expect. They may start defying you in other ways, or bully someone else who is weaker than them in order to get that feeling of being “in control.”

When it comes down to it, spanking doesn’t teach your child how to be in the real world. In the real world, privileges get taken away when you do something wrong. If you get a DUI, you get your driving license suspended. If you commit a crime, you pay a fine. We need to teach kids that there are consequences to their actions…but spanking is not needed to teach them this lesson.

Spanking creates fear and intimidation

It’s a natural human response to avoid pain and discomfort, so children will do anything (even lie) to avoid being spanked. Parents use spanking as a fear tactic to make their child less likely to misbehave. What they don’t realize is that the fear they have created has cut off open communication with their child. The child is afraid to go to their parent for help for fear of being punished for doing something wrong.

It’s as simple as this: the more your child fears punishment, the less likely they are to be honest with you.

What to do instead of spanking your child:

Any form of discipline ultimately has the same goal: to encourage the behavior we want to see and discourage the behavior we don’t want to see. There are so many ways we, as parents, can promote positive behaviors without using physical intimidation.

Model the kind of response you want to see

Your child is always looking to you to see how they should react in a given situation. If you fly off the handle at the first sign of adversity, so will they.

The single most important thing we can do to teach our children to be calm, respectful, and considerate is to be those things ourselves. It’s easier said than done. If you ask any parent what is the one thing they wish they could improve upon when it comes to their kids, the answer is probably patience. Our children know exactly how to push our buttons.

But it helps to just be aware of how our actions shape the way our children will respond to different situations. It gives us a different perspective. We are able to apologize when we’ve reacted in a way that we didn’t like. The door is opened to conversations about how adults make mistakes too, about how we are all learning and growing.

Take an adult time-out

When you recognize that you are getting upset and frustrated with your child, walk away and calm yourself down before deciding what their consequence for their behavior will be. Not only does this give you a chance to really think about what kind of punishment is warranted, but it also models for your child the importance of calming down before reacting.

Become a detective of your child

Misbehavior is communication. Think about what your child is trying to tell you when they are misbehaving. Are they tired? Hungry? Needing attention?

Just as babies cry when they need something, children misbehave when they have needs that aren’t being met. If you think of your child’s misbehavior in this way, you can begin to teach your child to communicate their feelings in a helpful way.

For example, my son will often misbehave while I’m busy cooking dinner. Instead of getting upset with him every time he does something to seek my attention during this time, I’ll often ask him “Are you trying to tell me something?” I’ll give him suggestions of things he can say like “Mommy will you play with me” or “Mommy will you look at my picture?”

You’d be shocked at how well this approach works. As soon as you pinpoint the reason behind the behavior you can address it head-on.

Figure out what motivates your child

Some parents say that taking away privileges as a method of discipline doesn’t work for their child. If this is the case, there are two possible reasons why: 1) the privilege is not motivating enough, or 2) the child is trying to gain a feeling of control over the situation by pretending not to care.

If your child falls into the first category, it’s time to get creative to figure out the best motivator. Some kids could care less about desserts or TV time, but look forward to other activities such as a special weekend outing. Think about how your child chooses to spend their free time. This is usually the best place to start.

Let’s say you have tried everything, and your child simply doesn’t care. Chances are they fall into the second category. Your attempts to take away privileges feel like a control tactic, and they push back in the only way they know how: by pretending not to care.

If this is the case, it’s time to mix things up. Instead of threatening to take away privileges for unwanted behavior, start pointing out your child’s positive behavior (no matter how small) and reward them with an unexpected privilege.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Bribes Don’t Work for Kids 

The child starts to feel good about themselves for choosing to obey on their own, and their need for control is met. Positive experiences build on each other and your child will be more likely to obey you in the future.

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4 thoughts on “How Spanking Changes Your Child’s Brain

  1. I love this post! Thank you for putting a well researched argument out there. I was spanked as a child and honestly don’t think it harmed me. Living with my family for a year with two toddlers, I felt so much pressure to discipline and have spanked them some. Now as I’m discovering positive parenting and implementing it into my parenting, the results are amazing! My older son especially has responded so well to it. People still think I’m passive and permissive but I personally feel we’ve made great progress and am resolved not to use physical discipline in this way in the future! This article really reinforced that for me.

    1. Thank you so much! It can be really hard to break the cycle of parenting our children the way we were parented growing up, but so rewarding when we do. I’m thrilled that you are seeing great results with positive parenting!

  2. Do you have any studies sited on here that support your argument. I have looked at many studies on corporal punishment and many popular articles seem to be flawed. They included harsh punishment from slapping to hitting and pushing your children as corporal punishment (spanking). They also don’t take into consideration the frequency of spanking. I would agree that spanking your child multiple times a week would have a negative outcome on many of the issues you raised. However, I have had troubles finding studies that break down corporal punishment in terms of frequency and the impact it has on children (i.e. parents that spank their children once every couple weeks or months vs parents that spank their Childer 3 or more times a week).

    1. Hi Pat,
      I think the reason you are having trouble finding studies that look at the frequency of corporal punishment is because it would be unethical to create the scenario for a study like that. It’s the same reason why doctors can’t say what is a “safe” amount of alcohol to consume while pregnant. They must say to avoid alcohol altogether because it has been linked to birth defects and it would be unethical to put babies at risk to try and determine what a “safe” amount would be. The same goes for spanking. We know that spanking is linked to a number of problems, and while we can *assume* that spanking less frequently would be connected to better outcomes than spanking more frequently, we can’t know the exact amount for sure. My stance is that there is never a situation in which an adult would need to spank a child as a form of punishment for their behavior. I have more information on my approach to behavior management under the “behavior and power struggles” section of my site. Hope that helps!

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