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Harvard Researchers Find Spanking Can Harm Child Brain Development in Ways Similar to Severe Abuse

A recent study published by Harvard researchers examines how spanking as a form of punishment can have long-term, negative impacts on children.
A recent study published by Harvard researchers examines how spanking as a form of punishment can have long-term, negative impacts on children. By Helen Y. Wu
By Rowena N. Wilson-Olivo, Contributing Writer

Spanking may negatively impact children’s brain development in ways similar to more severe forms of violence and abuse, a study published by Harvard researchers earlier this month found.

Three Harvard affiliates collaborated with researchers from the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on the study, which was published in the journal Child Development.

The research adds to a growing body of evidence linking corporal punishment to negative outcomes for children, but is the first of its kind to focus specifically on spanking. Previous studies have primarily focused on more severe forms of violence.

The researchers utilized MRI technology to examine the brain development of children ages 10 to 12. The research subjects included roughly 40 children who had experienced spanking, and roughly 140 children who did not experience spanking or more severe forms of violence and abuse.

During the brain scans, children were exposed to pictures of fearful faces, a stimuli that suggests there is an environmental threat present.

The results of the scans indicated a higher level of brain activity in multiple regions of the prefrontal cortexes of children who had been spanked than in children who had not been spanked. These are the same regions that show disregulation in cases of severe abuse such as physical violence and sexual abuse.

Kate A. McLaughlin, a Harvard psychology professor and co-author of the study, said spanking boosted activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that are part of a “salience network.” Activity in these regions of the brain communicates that “there's something important in the environment that we need to pay attention to," she said.

“We think that what this likely reflects is increased mobilization of resources to help kids stay safe in dangerous environments,” McLaughlin said.

In the short term, activation in the prefrontal cortex can help children adapt to adverse environmental circumstances. In the long-term, however, the effect can be detrimental across a range of outcomes, predisposing children to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression and prompting violent or aggressive behavior.

The prefrontal cortex is “critical for self-regulation and for executive functioning in general,” according to Jorge A. Cuartas, lead author of the paper and a Ph.D student at the School of Education.

McLaughlin said the researchers deliberately chose to examine spanking as a form of corporal punishment. Spanking remains a common form of discipline in the United States; per a recent survey, one third-of parents report having spanked their children during the past year.

“Many parents still see it as acceptable and appropriate to spank your children as a form of discipline and hold positive beliefs about this type of punishment in terms of being an effective discipline tool,” she said.

Cuartas, who has advised the government of his home country, Colombia, on how to support children’s healthy brain development, said he believes the study's findings have international importance. In many parts of the world, including Columbia, corporal punishment is considered to be an effective measure of discipline.

Ultimately, Cuartas said that social support can determine how an individual recovers from experiencing spanking in early life.

“Different people can eventually arrive to completely different outcomes, because no single exposure is completely deterministic,” Cuartas said. “In general, we know that the brain is highly plastic. So our brain can change — it can heal from those exposures and eventually achieve positive results.”

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ResearchNeurobiologyPsychology