The Detrimental Effects of Spanking: Tackling Adverse Childhood Experiences for a Brighter Future

Raising children is one of the most challenging responsibilities for any parent, and making sure they’re nurtured properly can present new challenges every day. 

It may be unsurprising then that almost 35 million children – nearly half the entire population of children in the United States – suffer one or more “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), according to the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality.

Even a single ACE can have adverse effects on a child’s future health and well-being, while as few as six can reduce a person’s life expectancy “by nearly 20 years.” 

Some ACEs are beyond control, such as having parents with mental health conditions or experiencing divorce and separation. However, one of the most prevalent ACEs is “being the victim of abuse (physical, sexual and/or emotional).”

Corporal punishment is one of the most prevalent forms of physical abuse, according to the World Health Organization, affecting 6 in 10 children worldwide.   

Does Corporal Punishment Work?

Spanking as a form of discipline is at least as old as the Bible, according to Maddie Utter, a family law lawyer writing for the Children’s Legal Rights Journal.

Utter references the Biblical concept of “spare the rod, spoil the child” and notes that contemporary practices and beliefs around corporal punishment can be traced back to Medieval Europe.

Does such a time-tested method of disciplining children work? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the answer is a firm “no.”

In a policy statement for the AAP, Robert D. Sege, MD, stated that “aversive” strategies, which are parenting techniques based on punishment rather than discipline, are not very effective in the short term.

Moreover, they don’t work at all in the long term. Aversive techniques include spanking, yelling, and shame-based tactics like the infamous “get along shirt” or removing the door from a child’s room.

But while aversive strategies don’t work in general, spanking, in particular, is noted by Sege to have serious negative effects on a child’s health. “With new evidence, researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children.”

How Spanking Impacts Young Minds

In fact, a study published in 2021 found evidence that spanking alters the brain’s chemistry and structure. The research followed children from 36 months to 12 years old, taking brain scans four times over two years. A final set of scans was administered when they were between 10 and 12 years old. 

Researchers asked children to self-identify whether they had been spanked. Several children were discovered to have been abused and were disqualified from the study, with researchers reporting the abuse to the authorities. Once controlled for abuse, the remaining children were asked to look at a series of faces expressing different emotions. 

When shown a fearful face, the children who had been spanked exhibited much higher responses in “multiple regions of the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex (PRC), including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial PFC, bilateral frontal pole and left middle frontal gyrus.”

The scholars concluded that although it may appear to be ‘just a smack on the hand’ or ‘a swat on the butt’ from a parent’s perspective, the impact of this action is far more severe on children.

The way spanked children’s brains respond to perceived threats is almost the same as observed in children who have suffered severe emotional, mental, or physical abuse.

So, what should parents do instead?

Take a Time-Out

Both parents and children can benefit from stepping away when a child is misbehaving, says Destry Maycock, author of the widely cited Ten Alternatives to Spanking.

“[Y]ou, the parent, walk away. It is perfectly okay to say. ‘I’m too upset to deal with you right now; we will talk about this later,’” Maycock says. 

The key is to set an appropriate duration for the timeout and make sure they understand the behavior and the corrective action are linked. “The general rule is one minute for every year of their age.” 

When using a time-out strategy with children, they must be somewhere that they can’t continue to seek attention. Other factors are quiet so that the child can think about their actions without distraction and that you avoid accidentally rewarding the child. 

A time-out spent in their bedroom with all their toys and electronics, for example, won’t provide the necessary discipline. The last element of a successful time-out is that if the child is actively acting out, the behavior needs to stop before the time-out can be completed.

“If a child is having a tantrum, then their time should start when they have calmed down and can keep it under control for the duration of the timeout,” Maycock says.

Set Appropriate Expectations and Follow Through

A child might simply not know or understand that their behavior is a problem, according to Maycock. As a parent, part of the job is to teach a child what they should do, not just what they shouldn’t do.  

“Instead of punishing them for misbehaving, teach them what they can do differently. Tell them, ‘Next time, please hang your coat up in the closet! How can we help you remember to do this?’”

And it’s not enough simply to set expectations, Maycock clarifies. Parents are geared to notice misbehavior, but sometimes, managing a child’s bad behavior comes at the expense of rewarding the correct behavior. 

When the child follows through on the rules, such as hanging their coat where they’re supposed to, parents should take a moment to acknowledge out loud that they did what they were supposed to and how much they appreciate it. 

If children only receive negative feedback, they can feel helpless or like there’s no incentive to follow the rules. 

Set Limits

Rather than giving orders, Maycock says, it’s better to communicate reasonable boundaries. “Instead of telling your children what to do, try telling them what you are going to do or [what you will] allow. ‘I will be happy to take you to your friends when you have finished your chores.’”

It’s also important to make the limits clear, says Zachary Meers, LCPC. “Specific rules and expectations should be presented in such a way that children can understand and explain them in their own words.”

For instance, “pick that up” is very vague and can leave a child feeling unsure about the correct behavior or leave a parent frustrated when they believe they’re being clear, but the child isn’t complying. 

Similarly, “pick up your toys” is still a very broad statement, whereas “pick up your teddy bear” is clear, concise, and sets a concrete expectation for the child to follow.

Learning to communicate clearly with children will yield significant benefits. However, Meers also emphasizes that certain limits should not be open to debate. 

“Providing children with the chance to understand why the rule is there is fine, but when parents engage in a power struggle, hurt feelings happen. Give the expectation, provide the reason, and then be done.”

Use Positive Language 

When communicating with a child, parents should consider how they phrase what they need to say, Maycock explains. It can be easy to fall into a habit of telling a child what’s not allowed or what they are expected not to do.

Instead, parents should try telling their children what behaviors are allowed and acceptable. 

“The first thing your child hears [is] what they can’t have,” Maycock says. “[But] they are less likely to argue when you are telling them what they can have or what you will allow.”

Meers concurs. “Lead with a positive statement. This is a good way to set up for a positive response.” 

An example of a positive statement might be complimenting the child’s strength while asking them to take out the trash or telling them how much you appreciate their efforts to keep things tidy when asking them to pick up after themselves. 

By acknowledging what the child can do when making requests or setting boundaries, the child is more likely to view the rule or task as a positive experience rather than a punitive one. 

Pick Your Battles

“Pick the top four things that you just can’t tolerate and focus on disciplining them just for those four behaviors,” Maycock advises. 

When parents are constantly correcting their child’s behavior, the child can feel as though nothing they do is right, leading to a sense of incompetence. This can ultimately result in apathy regarding rules and exacerbate actual bad behavior. 

By choosing four big things to focus on, the child gains an understanding of which rules are most important.

Instead of constantly disciplining a child, parents should offer their children choices, Maycock says. “A choice gives some control back to the child on the parents’ terms.”

Offering a child a choice, even one as simple as “Which of these two flavors of popsicle?” can help them adjust. It can also support them in learning to make decisions that are appropriate for their age, with the guidance of a parent to keep them safe. 

Other choices might be, “Do you want to help pick up in the living room or pick up in your room?” or “Would you like to go to the store with me or stay home with your other parent?”

“Rules and expectations are tricky, and sometimes we provide an expectation that may not work,” Meers says. Providing choices also allows both parent and child to test their expectations in a controlled way, determining if a rule or expectation has been set. 

It also allows the parent to see if the child is truly capable of following the rule or if the rule needs to be reworked so the child can meet the parents’ expectations.

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This article was produced by TPR Teaching. Source.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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