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Exposing Spankings’ Deep Wounds

Corporal Punishment Affects Neutral Systems

Spanking may impact a child's brain activity and neurodevelopment

By John Salak —

Spanking and corporal punishment of children has fallen out of favor in recent decades—at least publicly.

Numerous studies report that it is not an effective punishment; it can lead to anxiety and depression in some children and may even foster aggression in other youngsters. Of course, these reports don’t mean parents and guardians stopped this practice, although unseen in schools today.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but possibly between a quarter and a third of parents still spank their children at times, a significant drop from the 1990s when more than 50 percent of American parents used the procedure, according to the University of Minnesota.

While the citations of the adverse effects of spankings and corporal punishment have been around for decades, new research shows how corporal punishment impacts neural systems to produce these undesirable results.

The violence inflicted by a parent for punishment, correction, discipline or instruction evokes a complex emotional experience.

The researchers at Florida State University applied a multi-year, longitudinal study on 149 boys and girls ages 11 to 14 to get a handle on the neurological consequences of corporal punishments. They found this by having participants play a video game-like task and a monetary guessing game. They underwent continuously recorded electroencephalography—a noninvasive technique to measure brain-wave activity. The Florida State team used the data to determine two scores for each participant. One score reflected their neural response to error, and the other their neural response to reward.

Two years later, participants and their parents completed questionnaires to screen for anxiety and depression and to assess parenting style. As expected, kids who had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to develop anxiety and depression.

“Our paper first replicates the well-known negative effect of corporal punishment on a child’s wellbeing: we found that corporal punishment is associated with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms in adolescence. However, our study demonstrates that corporal punishment might impact brain activity and neurodevelopment,” said Kreshnik Burani, one of the study’s leaders.

The team found that adolescents who received “punishments” showed a larger neural response to error and a blunted response to reward.

“Specifically, our paper links corporal punishment to increased neural sensitivity to making errors and decreased neural sensitivity to receiving rewards in adolescence. We see that increased neural response to errors is associated with anxiety and risk for anxiety. The decreased neural response to rewards is related to depression and risk for depression. Corporal punishment might alter specific neurodevelopmental pathways that increase the risk for anxiety and depression. It makes children hypersensitive to their own mistakes and less reactive to rewards and other positive events in their environment,” he added.

The research team noted that its findings provide new insights into the ramifications of corporal punishment that might also offer clues that could help children and adolescents suffering from anxiety and depression.





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