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Spare the rod, spanking your kids could permanently damage their brains

It hurts your mind more than your behind.

Corporal punishment

There has been much ado, over the years, about the sorts of experiences which might be ruining kids. Violent video games and sexualized movies are common scapegoats for the ills of society, but those of us who grew up on The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (now streaming on Peacock!) were greeted with a new cinematic trauma every week and most of us turned out fine. Those of us who didn’t, probably can’t blame the television for our problems. To date, the evidence for content-driven mental illness is flimsy at best, but there is evidence that some experiences can and do lead to long-lasting psychological changes, and they’re more likely to happen at home than at the movie theater.

In recent decades, the popularity of corporal punishment as a form of discipline for children has declined, and now there’s scientific evidence confirming we were right to be uncomfortable. That’s according to a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

The negative physical consequences of hitting anyone, but especially children, are apparent. When you hit someone it causes blunt force trauma. Bruises are common, as are cuts, scrapes, and broken bones. However, the mental and emotional cost of corporal punishment is less well understood.

A team of scientists from Florida State University and the University of California conducted a study with 149 children between the ages of 11 and 14, all from the area around Tallahassee, Florida. They found that violence triggers a complex emotional response which is made even stronger when that violence comes from a parent or trusted adult. The downstream result of that emotional response is an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

In the study, children played a video game and a monetary guessing game, all while their brains were continuously monitored with an EEG. Researchers were looking specifically at the ways their brains responded to failure and success. Participants were later asked to fill out a series of questionnaires which asked about anxiety, depression, and parenting style. The survey results revealed precisely what researchers expected to find: Kids who experienced corporal punishment had higher rates of anxiety and depression. When those results were bumped up against the EEG measurements from the game tests, scientists recognized how corporal punishment translates into the real world and ultimately leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

The EEG results showed that kids who had been hit by a parent had a larger neural response to making errors during the game when compared with kids who weren’t hit. They also had a lower neural response to success and reward. Practically, in the games, it meant that when they made a mistake they were hyper aware of it, and when they did well they didn’t light up. Extrapolating to the rest of the world, it means that kids who are spanked are on high alert for danger and hyper focused on their perceived mistakes, even at the expense of their successes.

According to the data, increased neural response to errors in the game correlated to higher rates of anxiety while decreased response to rewards correlated with depression in the test group. Scientists noted that corporal punishment might alter neurodevelopmental pathways in the brain which correspond to increased risk with these conditions. When kids get hit by their parents, their brains might quite literally get reprogrammed to see the world more dimly, every mistake more glaring and every success less exciting.

The good news is that corporal punishment is already declining in practice, and understanding the neural mechanisms at play in anxiety and depression could give us better tools for combating them. If you want your kids to be happy, don’t hit them. Simple.

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