Spanking Affects Brain Development in Children

Spanking affects brain development in children
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Researchers at Harvard have found that spanking may alter a child’s brain development; similar to more severe forms of abuse.

Spanking is a form of corporal punishment intended to cause physical pain to a child. Although many countries have banned the act in schools and homes, more than 100 countries worldwide consider it a legal punishment method. The Human Rights Watch estimates that ninety per cent of the world’s children live in countries where violence against children is still legal. Despite the fact that multiple studies have linked spanking to damaging outcomes in children. Now, a new study by Harvard researchers has found evidence of spanking altering children’s brain development.

Generally, adults employ spanking to discipline children and promote better behaviour. However, it instead leads to the development of more aggressive behaviours in children. Along with detrimental physical, mental, and emotional effects.

We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behaviour problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don’t think about spanking as a form of violence. 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.

Katie A. McLaughlin, senior researcher

Similar to Severe Forms of Abuse

The team of researchers analyzed data from 147 children, aged between 3 to 11 years, part of an ongoing longitudinal study. The study focused on children at the age of 10-12 years old. Along with a functional MRI assessment, children also underwent assessment of corporal punishment, whether they had experienced any severe form of abuse. 40 children reported being spanked in the past, while 107 had never experienced any form of abuse or spanking.

Next, researchers placed the children under MRI scanners and showed them actors’ faces making ‘fearful’ and ‘neutral faces. The aim of the study was to investigate the link between spanking and neural responses to fearful stimuli; suggesting an environmental threat.

Fearful stimuli led to greater activation throughout the brain, as compared to neutral faces. Compared to others, spanked children demonstrated a greater neural activity to fearful faces. Moreover, there was no difference in neural activity to the fearful stimuli among the abused and spanked group. Thus, showing the similarity in brain development among children who face abuse and those who are spanked.

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. It’s more a difference of degree than of type.

Katie A. McLaughlin, senior researcher

The authors of the study hope that the results will help families realize the negative consequences of corporal punishment. And encourage them to adopt better practices for disciplining children.


Cuartas, J., Weissman, D.G., Sheridan, M.A., Lengua, L. and McLaughlin, K.A. (2021), Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children. Child Dev.


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