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Harvard Research: Spanking May Affect Children’s Brain Development The Way Abuse Does
PHOTO BY Shutterstock/HTWE
  • Spanking as a form of discipline is still a subject for debate in the Philippines. Some Pinoy parents believe that it can be used so long as you know the difference between abuse (hurting out of anger) and correcting misbehavior out of love.

    However, several studies have already found that spanking can have a negative impact on children, including increased chances for anti-social behavior, mental health and behavioral problems, and cognitive difficulties. Now a new study says that “spanking may affect a child’s brain development in ways similar to more severe forms of violence.”

    How spanking affects brain development

    Researchers from Harvard University analyzed data from a large study of children between the ages of 3 and 11. They focused on 147 kids aged 10 and 11 who had been spanked and made them lay in an MRI machine.

    The children then watched a computer screen where different images of “fearful” and “neutral” faces where shown. Their brain activities were analyzed to see whether the two faces influenced different patterns of brain activity in children who were spanked versus those who were not.

    According to the researchers, “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 (prefrontal cortex) to fearful relative to neutral faces than children who were never spanked.”

    The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that responds to cues in the environment “that tend to be consequential, such as a threat.” This can affect how a person makes decisions or how they face a situation.


    Researchers then compared the brain activity of the children who were spanked to children who were abused. According to the study, there were no regions of the brain that differed between the two.

    The findings, published in the journal Child Development, are important because while parents might see their actions as a form of discipline and not abuse, children actually find it hard to differentiate between the two.

    “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 at all that different than abuse,” shares Katie A. McLaughlin, a John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher of the study.

    “It’s more a difference of degree than of type,” she adds.

    It doesn’t mean, however, that individuals who are spanked as a child automatically grow up with problematic behavior. “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,” noted Jorge Cuartas, first author of the study.

    The researchers stress that spanking and corporal punishment pose a risk that parents should be wary of. Not only can it increase potential problems for children’s development, it can also pose negative consequences that parents “haven’t thought of before,” said the researchers.

    Consider positive discipline for your child instead. Click here for ways to do it.

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