Little Children Most Vulnerable to Violence

Early experiences have formative effects a child’s developing brain.  We often imagine that little children are resilient and that they don’t remember early experiences.  We are learning that resilience is developed through consistent, patterned, repetitive interactions with a loving and safe care giver.  Even though little children may not remember early experiences, these experiences inform brain development.  Violence can activate the stress response in small children, particularly if there is no loving caregiver to soothe them.  Caregivers are the “mitigating influence” that can prevent a toxic stress response in the brain.  It is not the event itself that is necessarily traumatic, but rather the ability of the child to tolerate the stress.

Children cannot tolerate stress on their own.  They depend upon the calming and soothing capability of their primary caregiver.

So when that caregiver is the source of threat (by spanking or yelling at the child), or the caregiver is threatened themselves (such as domestic violence), the child cannot effectively self soothe.  If the child is subjected to situations where they cannot self soothe, it can put the child’s brain in a constant state of arousal.  This state of arousal, if prolonged, can be toxic.  Because small children’s brains are developing at such a rapid pace, a toxic stress response has a much greater impact.  This is why spanking/hitting small children is so incredibly dangerous.  This runs counter to the cultural belief that a little smack on the diaper isn’t a problem.  The younger the child, the greater the developmental risk.

What may seem like just a tap or a smack,
is experienced by the brain as a threat.

Preschool age children cope in large part through sensory soothing –  touch, smell, movement, sound/music, taste/eating/sucking and facial expressions.  Their ability to sooth with words can be highly dependent upon how upset, hungry, overstimulated or tired they are.  The more upset, the more dependent they become on somatic soothing.  Any threat to their somatic experience fundamentally undermines their ability to cope.  Spanking is a serious threat to the somatic equilibrium of the child.  The negative effects are not readily seen in the moment, but can show up later on, days, months and even years later – sometimes as late as adolescence.

The bottom line is, we must prevent violence early on. Negative experiences and toxic stress alter brain development the most pervasively in younger children, and these neurological changes are enduring and can be extremely difficult to change later on.

Understanding how important early experiences are, consider these alarming facts:

  • A third of all parents spank babies under one years old

  • Over half of all toddlers are spanked three or more times a week

  • On average children are spanked until age 12

Spanking is a chronic stress (toxic) for many children in America.

Researcher Murray Straus says, “Being hit by parents is a very stressful experience. Our mythology is that kids take it in their stride, and they do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful. Moreover, it’s not only a stressful experience, it’s a chronic stress. It starts, for a third of American kids in infancy, and the average age of cessation is age 12. So it goes on for 12 years. There is a chronic stress for 12 years, and that affects the brain.”


Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University video on the effects of violence on little children.

Dr. Bruce Perry talks about how to help develop Self Regulation in our children

About Robbyn Peters Bennett, LMHC, CMHS
Founder of

6 Responses to Little Children Most Vulnerable to Violence

  1. Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
    Since I began my work with those labeled mentally ill it’s been clear that trauma plays a large part in the lives of most of those with psychiatric labels. This simple observation that many of us have made and many others want to deny is beginning to be largely supported in the literature and science. It starts with our kids. It can end there too if we raise them in appropriate nurturing environments. We deny it at a cost to everyone in our abusive and traumatic culture. We might also treat the vulnerable who get labeled mentally ill as they are, traumatized people who need gentle loving care. That’s rarely on offer in the mental health system. In fact many people are instead re-traumatized.

    • Thank you Monica. I couldn’t agree more. Particularly having empathy for those who have been effected by violence.

  2. Harris1025 says:

    As a person who was spanked as a child, I think this is bologna. Spanking may not be the best thing for all children because it simply doesn’t correct the behavior. But God calls us to discipline our children with the rod. This is why I don’t use my hand, but a wooden spoon. We discipline our children because we love them too much to let their bad behavior continue. As long as a spanking is given out of love and understanding, not out of anger, I do not believe it is a threat.

    • Dear Ms. Harris,

      There are Christian organizations that do not interpret the scripture as requiring you to hit your child with a spoon. Here is a link to their sites, if you are interested.

      From a research perspective, hitting children with spoons (implements) substantially increases the likelihood of meeting the criteria for legal child abuse – 9X as likely! Also, spanking with implements is correlated to alterations brain development, effecting the prefrontal cortex.

      Here is a clip talking about the link between spanking and child abuse:

      Here is a short video on how spanking can alter brain development:

      We know that maternal warmth does not mitigate the negative effects associated with spanking. See:

      I hope these materials help you reconsider your views. Thank you for visiting our site!
      Robbyn Peters Bennett

    • Tracey says:

      Jesus asked us to love our neighbour, this includes little children, God is the perfect father, he never spanks his children.God gives us grace, forgiveness, teaches us about relationships. Do not misinterpret his word to justify abuse, there are many more bible quotes about love and loving children.

  3. eagoodlife says:

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    The dangers of spanking.


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