Topic: How spanking may affect brain development in children
Spanking may affect a child’s brain development in similar ways to more severe forms of violence, according to a new study led by Harvard researchers.
The research, published recently in the journal Child Development, builds on existing studies that show heightened activity in certain regions of the brains of children who experience abuse in response to threat cues.
The group found that children who had been spanked had a greater neural response in multiple regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), including in regions that are part of the salience network. These areas of the brain respond to cues in the environment that tend to be consequential, such as a threat, and may affect decision-making and processing of situations.
“We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don’t think about spanking as a form of violence,” said Katie A. McLaughlin, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study. “In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing.”
According to the study’s authors, corporal punishment has been linked to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and substance use disorders. And recent studies show that approximately half of parents in U.S. studies reported spanking their children in the past year and one-third in the past week. However, the relationship between spanking and brain activity has not previously been studied.
McLaughlin and her colleagues—including Jorge Cuartas, first author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and David Weissman, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology’s Stress & Development Lab—analyzed data from a large study of children between the ages of three and 11. They focused on 147 children around ages 10 and 11 who had been spanked, excluding children who had also experienced more severe forms of violence.
Topic Discussed: How spanking may affect brain development in children