Smacking your child can affect their brain development by altering neural responses to their environment, a new study warns.
Harvard University researchers investigated the effects of smacking, known as corporal punishment, on the brains of 147 children.
They found it may affect a child’s brain development in similar ways to ‘more severe forms of violence’ and maltreatment.
Children who had been smacked had a greater neural response in multiple regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), including in regions that are part of what’s known as the ‘salience network’ (SN).
These regions respond to cues in the environment that tend to be consequential, such as a threat, and may affect decision-making and processing of situations.
Smacking is legal in the US, while in the UK, Scotland completely prohibited corporal punishment of children in 2020, and Wales is set to follow in 2022.
In England, however, a ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence allows parents to legally smack their child unless it causes bruises, grazes, scratches, minor swellings or cuts.
This defence has been criticised as it effectively means children can be smacked if it doesn’t leave evidence.
This could mean parents target areas that don’t leave a mark, such as the head, potentially causing even more serious injuries that aren’t easily detected.
Smacking could alter a child’s neural responses to their environment in similar ways to a child experiencing more severe violence (stock picture posed by models)
What the law says
Hitting a child as a form of chastisement has been outlawed in several countries across the world such as France, Scotland and Sweden.
In England, it is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’.
The defence of reasonable punishment is not valid in the case where the punishment ‘amounts to wounding, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or child cruelty’.
In the US, it is legal to hit a child in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, but states differ widely about what precisely is allowed.
Enforcement of the law often depends on the discretion of prosecutors.
An NSPCC spokesperson said: ‘There is clear evidence that physical punishment damages children’s wellbeing and is linked to poorer outcomes in childhood and adulthood.
‘We would encourage parents to use alternative methods to teach their children the difference between right and wrong, with a positive parenting approach such as setting clear and consistent boundaries.’
The new research from the Harvard team builds on existing studies that show heightened activity in certain regions of the brains of children who experience abuse in response to threat cues.
‘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,’ said study author Katie A. McLaughlin at Harvard’s Department of Psychology.
‘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.’
McLaughlin and her colleagues analysed data from a large study of children between the ages of three and 11.
They focused on 147 children around ages 10 and 11 who had been spanked, excluding children who had also experienced more severe forms of violence.
Map shows the countries that have outlawed all forms of corporal punishment of children (highlighted in red). Wales is set to follow in 2022
Smacking ‘makes your child less intelligent’
Smacking children stunts their intelligence, prior research suggests.
Smacked youngsters have IQs severalpoints lower than those whose parents merely remonstrate with them, a 2009 study found.
Researcher Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire, who devoted his career to studying the effects of corporal punishment, said talking tochildren fosters brain development.
In contrast, physical punishment can leave youngsters in a state of fear, hindering their ability to learn.
DrStraus said: ‘The less corporal punishment is used by a parent, the more verbal interaction is needed to teach and correct the child.
‘Beingslapped or spanked is a frightening and threatening event that childrenexperience as highly stressful. Fright and stress can result incognitive deficits.’
Dr Straus, whose books include Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, called for legislation on smacking to be introduced in the US before his death in 2016.
Each child lay in an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, which uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.
As they did so, they watched a computer screen that displayed different images of actors making ‘fearful’ and ‘neutral’ faces.
A scanner captured the child’s brain activity in response to each kind of face, and the images were analysed to determine whether the faces sparked different patterns of brain activity in children who were spanked compared to those who were not.
‘On average, across the entire sample, fearful faces elicited greater activation than neutral faces in many regions throughout the brain,’ the researchers say in their paper, published in the journal Child Development.
‘Children who were spanked demonstrated greater activation in multiple regions of PFC to fearful relative to neutral faces than children who were never spanked.’
Researchers believe the study is a first step towards further analysis of spanking’s potential effects on children’s brain development.
Corporal punishment has already been linked to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioural problems and substance use disorders.
However, the relationship between spanking and brain activity had not previously been studied.
‘While we might not conceptualise 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,’ said McLaughlin.
‘We’re hopeful that this finding may encourage families not to use this strategy, and that it may open people’s eyes to the potential negative consequences of corporal punishment in ways they haven’t thought of before.’
Parents and policymakers should work toward trying to reduce corporal punishment, the researchers add.
The argument against criminalising smacking seems to stem from concerns over the state’s growing interference in family life.
Campaigners have suggested it undermines parents’ ability to decide how to bring up their children – and will result in needless criminalisation.
But when Scotland outlawed smacking children last November, Minister for Children Maree Todd said that the ‘justifiable assault’ defence was ‘outdated’ and had ‘no place in a modern Scotland’.
‘The removal of this defence reaffirms that we want this country to be the best place in the world for children to grow up,’ she said.
In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to explicitly prohibit all forms of corporal punishment of children.
Since then, more than 60 countries or territories have followed suit, including Brazil, Spain, France, New Zealand, Portugal, South Korea – but not England or the US.
In the US, approximately half of parents reported spanking their children between the ages 0-9 in the year prior, according to a 2019 study.
Spanking your children can make them violent towards their partners in later life: 2017 study
Children who are punished by spanking are more likely to be abusive towards their partners in later life, claimed a 2017 study.
The study, from the University of Texas Medical Branch, asked 758 young adults between the ages of 19 and 20 how often they had been spanked, slapped or struck.
Children who had been punished with physical violence were much more likely to become aggressive with a future romantic partner, the team found.
Data from the study found that nearly one in five (19 per cent) admitted to violence towards their lovers.
Sixty eight per cent claimed to have experienced corporal punishment as a child.
The study’s lead author, Jeff Temple, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that they had to determine what they considered punishment and what they considered abuse.
Speaking to CNN, he said: ‘We defined [child abuse] as being hit with a belt or board, left with bruises that were noticeable or going to the doctor or hospital.
‘Kids who said they had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to have recently committed dating violence.’
The study found it was not just children who had been abused with physical violence who turned out to be nasty in later life.
Spanking as a form of punishment was enough to increase violent behaviour in adults.
The participants had been part of an ongoing scientific trial in Texas since they were mid-teens.
The trend to become violent in adulthood was true regardless of sex, age, parental education, ethnicity and childhood abuse.
Researchers controlled these factors in their analysis and found that they made no difference.
The full findings were published in the Journal of Pediatrics.