Do you have one of those uncles who say, “I was spanked, and I turned out okay” whenever you talk about establishing consequences for your child (I’m one of those moms who don’t even like the word ‘discipline‘ —you can make fun of me if you want). Well, according to research, spanking can negatively affect your children’s brain—and if there’s even a small chance you can negatively impact your child, why not leave spankings in the past, where they belong?
Licensed psychologist and school psychologist Dr. Han Ren spoke with BuzzFeed about her work with children—in particular, how spanking affects them.
Dr. Ren, who primarily sees children of immigrants, Asian Americans, and other people of color, also specializes in treating overthinking and overachieving children.
Dr. Ren sees spanking as linked to generational trauma:
“This is still something that’s a remnant of the old ways of dealing with conflict and it persists within the parent-child relationship. Mostly because people say, ‘I was spanked and that’s how I know how to discipline my children.’ They don’t have access to alternatives so they think this is the only way they can raise law-abiding good citizens.”
“So many communities of color use spanking as part of what they deem ‘cultural.’ I think we confuse what’s cultural with what’s generational trauma because it’s something that was used on our people. These are communities that have been enslaved and oppressed and colonized. It was the most common method of keeping people in line and that gets passed down through the body, through generations. So we confuse it, thinking it’s culture,” Dr. Ren noted.
Research compiled over the past 30 years suggests that spanking is linked to depression and anxiety as well as aggression, impulse control, anger problems, and “other problems that infringe on the rights of others,” said Dr. Red. “In addition, we’ve seen poor cognitive development, such as difficulty with concentration, thinking, and planning. Poor emotional regulation, poor personal conflict resolution, and other maladaptive, problematic outcomes.”
In particular, a new study from Harvard used an fMRI machine to monitor the changes in different parts of a child’s brain in real-time.
“This study looked at brain activation in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotion, especially fear and anger. They also looked at the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that’s responsible for executive function, decision-making, planning, and higher-order thinking,” said Dr. Ren.
Researchers discovered that when looking at a fearful face compared to a neutral face, the children showed an increase in brain activation. However, the children who had been spanked had a very high level of activation to fearful faces and a lower degree of activation to neutral faces compared to non-spanked children.
So, instead of spanking your children, Dr. Ren has some better suggestions: “We need to teach kids who are really little how to self-regulate. Take deep breaths or find other sensory outlets, like screaming into a pillow. Teach them to self-monitor—like ‘am I hungry?’, ‘am I tired?’—and give them the vocabulary for expressing their needs.”
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