Maternal Warmth Doesn’t Make Spanking Less Harmful

Thanks to the marvelous discoveries in neuroscience, parents are beginning to understand the danger of toxic stress on their child’s developing brain.  When I was a young mother 25 years ago, the only toxins I knew about were alcohol and caffeine during pregnancy.  I didn’t want to have arguments in front of my children or spank them, but I had no idea that arguing or yelling or spanking could actually be toxic to the brain!

The greatest risk is when we become the source of threat to our children.

When we talk about toxic stress, we often think about natural disasters or a nasty divorce.  But the surprising thing is, children can cope with fairly serious stressors if they have the “mitigating influence” of a loving caregiver.  You may wonder, how can I be a protective mitigating influence to my child?  We provide that mitigating influence when we are consistently safe, secure, and loving toward our children.  Our role is to buffer our children from stressors in their environment.  The greatest risk is when we become the source of threat to our children.

Mothers Affection

Many people believe that if a mother spanks her child, but is generally warm and affectionate toward her child, the spanking will not be harmful.  The fact is, science does not support this cultural belief.  We have known for some time that spanking is strongly linked to increased aggression in young children.  Recent research in a study of over 3,000 children now shows that the warmth of the mother does not prevent the negative effects of spanking.  This means children who are spanked are at much greater risk for being more aggressive – period.  A mother’s warmth does not decrease the risk.  Wow! How can that be?

It is important to understand what causes the increase in aggression. One obvious reason is, violence is being modeled and children are incredible mimics.  Even more importantly, spanking interferes with proper development of the brain’s regulatory equipment, which develops in the first five years of life.

Spanking can interfere with proper development of the brain’s regulatory equipment.

Did you know…

  • Over 30% of all children are spanked before they are one year old, and
  • Children are most frequently spanked around age 3

Liz GershoffIronically, this is  the most vulnerable period of development for the regulatory equipment of the brain!  For example, the amygdala, responsible for the stress response (fight or flight), is nearly mature by age 4.  Many scientists believe that the dopamine system’s set point (responsible for allowing us to feel joy, cope with stress, and experience pleasure) is also established during these early years.

It is really important to understand that the first five years of life is when children are most vulnerable to stress.  When we use harsh discipline, we risk interfering with the proper development of the regulatory system.  The long-term risks are profound.  The brain develops sequentially in a cascading fashion, so early problems in brain development  effect ongoing development.  When children reach adolescence, their brain goes through significant changes.  For example, the dopamine system is pruned by about 40%!  So it is very important that the dopamine system be fully developed in the early years, so that this pruning process doesn’t “over-prune” leaving the child with insufficient brain equipment to cope in her adolescent years.  A poorly developed self-regulatory system often is not that obvious until the early teen years.

Teenagers with a compromised regulatory system are very different than normal teenagers.  They are more vulnerable to abusing alcohol and drugs, and are more prone to feeling depressed, anxious and suicidal.  Teenagers with self-regulation problems cannot easily cope with relationship challenges, and have greater difficulty with executive functioning and focusing.  They can be more irritable and more easily overwhelmed.  The important thing to remember is, the quality of our relationship to our toddler has an enormous effect on how well she will cope later on.

Increased aggression in children is a sign of increased brain dysregulation.

Once we understand the idea of a “mitigating influence,” the research makes more sense.  When a loving mother spanks her child, in that moment she is no longer a buffer for her child.  Rather, she is the source of that stress.  When the primary caregiver is the source of stress, the brain can have a toxic stress reaction.  Increased aggression in children is a sign of increased brain dysregulation.  Children who are aggressive are basically more anxious and feel more easily threatened.  From a brain perspective, aggression is a response to distress and alarm.  So, because these children are more easily distressed, they are more reactive.

Think of it this way.  It would be much less dangerous for your neighbor to hit your child than for you to hit your child.  Why?  Because when a stranger threatens your child, you are still a safe and secure resource for your child.  You are able to help your child regulate her brain in reaction to that stress.  When you strike your child, you cause a huge biological reaction in your child’s brain and you are no longer available to help your child’s brain regulate.  When you are the source of threat, your child doesn’t have a safe and secure relationship to help buffer stress – and that is what makes the stress toxic!

Spanking can be a biological insult that alters brain development.

What might seem like a minor stress, like smacking our child on the bottom, is actually a very high-risk behavior because we are tampering with the child’s stress buffer (her relational bond).  The negative consequences are not only psychological – they are biological.  Spanking is not only a psychological insult — it is a biological insult that can result in brain alteration.  The take home message is, spanking can cause brain damage.  Why risk it?

Can spanking really cause alterations in brain development?

An interview with Dr. Martin Teicher, Neuroscientist, Researcher on Early Abuse & Neglect and the Effects on Brain Development.

Want a copy of the research?

Listen to Interview with Dr. Gershoff

About Robbyn Peters Bennett, LMHC, CMHS
Founder of

37 Responses to Maternal Warmth Doesn’t Make Spanking Less Harmful

  1. Pingback: Spanking = Abuse | Benjamin Gabler, MSc

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think that the original poster should also get some therapy. It’s very difficult to help a child if the parent has unresolved issues herself. Both would benefit in the long term.

  3. sonnisideup says:

    Reblogged this on Sonni Side Up and commented:

  4. blavins says:

    I was spanked as a child. I don’t have aggression issues. In fact most people would describe me as a mild guy. I know many others like me. I think the study is flawed. I don’t agree with abuse but I think discipline is necessary and you can’t reason with a child who doesn’t even know the language yet.

    • Blavins,

      Thank you for your response. What exactly do you believe is flawed about the study? The study may not align with what you believe, but that does not make it flawed. It is a very large sample (over 3,000) and is peer reviewed.

      The fact is, many, many children are raised without spanking. There are much more sophisticated and relational ways to educate small children. Hitting a child utterly unnecessary and is very risky to their development. The argument that you were spanked and you are not aggressive (and neither are your friends who were spanked), therefore spanking does not make most children aggressive is flawed. It is like saying, I smoke and I didn’t get lung disease, therefore it isn’t risky for most people to smoke.

      There is general statistical agreement of 93% that spanking is linked to negative outcomes such as aggression. If you are not aggressive and you did not suffer from the effects of spanking, then you are probably lucky.

      • Anonymous says:

        Although I agree with your argument I think the burden of proof is on those that try to prove a time tested method wrong. Not the other way around. I believe it is flawed because it goes against what I have personally observed in my environment. I have seen many parents who don’t spank their children and they are uncontrollable. My mother runs a daycare and the children of parents that don’t believe in spanking are less manageable than the children who are spanked. The children who are spanked show no ill effects and seem to be normal, healthy, happy kids. Whereas the other children are constantly in trouble, don’t play well with other kids and tend to be self-centered. I would need more evidence than this one study.

        On top of that the kids parents who don’t believe in spanking are also afraid of being parents. They want to be the children’s friends. I’m not saying you can’t be friends but you need to make clear the boundary of authority. Not let your kids rule you. A healthy fear of your parents is what is needed. Not a morbid fear of being punished but a fear of disappointing your parents.

        When it comes to little ones that are too young to reason with, the only thing they understand is pain. A little pain can prevent them from harm. Say for instance your child has a bad habit of constantly putting her hand up on the burner of the stove. Now while the stove is cool she doesn’t get burned and doesn’t learn not to touch it. You tell her to stop putting her hand up on the burner to try and break her bad habit but she doesn’t listen. You can’t reason with her that she may one day touch it when it’s hot. So you smack her hand enough to sting so that she knows beyond a doubt that this is unacceptable. She may not understand at the time but she will break her habit and you have just prevented her from possibly a much more serious pain and possible infection in the future. You can’t childproof your home completely but when a child learns that when you say “NO” and back that up with consistent punishment, in the future she won’t have to be smacked. She will be conditioned. But if you also show love to your child, he/she will know just as I and many others learned from our parents that they love us and are looking out for our best interests.

      • But children only need to be conditioned in order to make parental life easier? I would much rather watch my child and ensure i moved her away from harm, explaining why each time. There will come a day when she understands the explanation, until then i wont beat down her natural inquisitiveness.

    • If you can’t reason with a child who doesn’t understand the language, how can you discipline when they wont understand the consequences? Personally we parent by only enforcing genuinely needed limits, and we enforce those with kindness, no she wont learn not to do something because we said so, but as she grows, explores and naturally develops she’ll learn good from bad. I wont mould my child to my ideals.

      • blavins says:

        A child understands pain. They know it’s a negative consequence. It doesn’t need to be extreme. Just enough to make the point. Read my latest comment above for more insight into my explanation.

    • Gayle Holten says:

      Blavins- think about what you’re saying… “you can’t reason with a child who doesn’t know language yet” – so because through no fault of his own he cannot yet understand your message then you are going to hit him? Discipline means to teach. Think about what a child is learning about you – about your relationship with him. That’s exactly what they article is trying to teach. You didn’t turn out okay because of your spankings. You turned out okay despite your spankings. Let’s stop the aggression and violence in our families.

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s not that he doesn’t understand your message so you hit him. It is training them that when you say not to do something the minor pain associated with it helps them to understand the seriousness of it. It is for a protection not just to inflict pain. I think by labeling it violence, it sounds horrible. I don’t consider it violence. It is not violent, it is a minor smack that can send a message. You notice this in nature as well. Consider how a mother cat trains her kittens. When they do something wrong she will bat at them and hiss to send a message.

        Now I just want to make my point clear, I don’t think spanking is useful in all cases and I don’t think many parents are doing it right either. I don’t think spanking works after the child reaches a certain maturity. And at that point I think reasoning with the child is the best thing to do. There comes a point when a child has to stand on their own two feet as well. I also think that not all children need spanked. Sometimes just a look can make them feel shame.

        Spanking in anger is wrong as well. If you as a parent are angry about what the child did wrong, you should take some time to cool down before administering discipline. This is where many parents go wrong. The child should not fear the anger of their parents but the shame of their parents.

        Many parents today are afraid of inflicting shame or pain on their child. They believe this is abuse. In fact though they are sheltering their children and pampering them. Many will grow up not being able to accept when things don’t go their way. They will have trouble coping in a world that doesn’t revolve around them. I’m not saying all parents are like this but many are.

        As for my observation of the children my mother watches, I know the parents of these children. I am not giving a sweeping generalization, I know first hand how these parents discipline their children. Just to clear that up.

    • Anonymous says:

      In the context of early childhood, your absolutely right. Very young children do not have the language to be able to reason. As adults/parents it is up to us to reflect on “what’s going on for the child” and respond appropriately. Smacking is not responding appropriately. It is using physical force to instil a sense of shame, guilt, fear on the recipient all of which are linked to poor mental health outcomes in the future. As adults, we will always remember how our parents made us feel. Does smacking lead to us feeling valued, heard, or respected?

    • SQuiroz says:

      I agree with you Blavins whole heartedly. It seems that now a days parents don’t want to discipline their children. Reasoning with the child is not discipline. Period. They would rather ignore the problem then deal with it early on. Disciplined children have more self control and know that there are consequences for their behavior. Trying to reason with a 2 or 3 year is just letting the child run the parents and conditioning the child to basically think that they can do what ever they want since there is no consequence just a lecture (reasoning). Now here is a question…. If more and more parents don’t discipline just try to reason with their child don’t you think society would have become less violent. I have to say it is so nice to live in a less violent society… oh wait I don’t. Why? There seems to be in increase in violent, selfish behavior with crimes being more and more common. Why is that? I guess reasoning with the children is apparently not working because things are getting worse not better.

      • Statistics do not support your belief that we are more violent as a nation. The overall trends have been declining, and probably in part due to more humane parenting practices and a reduction in using hitting as a form of discipline. There is no research showing that children raised in a non-violent manner are less behaved. In fact, the opposite is true. Spanking dysregulates a young child’s brain, and injures the trust and bond between the parent and child.

        Small children in particularly should NEVER be hit. Their brains are so vulnerable. Toddlers and preschoolers can reason, and when they cannot there are better interventions. Check out alternatives on our resource page:

        Positive Discipline works!

        Personally, my granddaughter is raised without violence, and she is incredibly sophisticated and well behaved and HAPPY and open and honest and generally unafraid. Why? Because we respect her and she trusts us. I would never hit her. She is not alone. There are entire European nations raising children without violence with excellent results.

        The research only shows that spanking is a risk for serious problems. There is no positive correlation with spanking. Only risks. Why risk it?

  5. The implication is that it is irreversible, but what of the research that shows that we can change the landscape of our brains through neuroplasticity. Only one side of the picture is shown here.

    • Yes, brain plasticity is a marvelous thing. However, early development of the lower brain is more simple and much less plastic, so it is much more difficult to change. Not only are the lower regions of the brain that develop in the first five years less plastic, but they influence ongoing development of the entire brain. Harsh punishment can dysregulate the lower brain and cause the regulatory equipment to form improperly.

      Anyone who has worked with adolescents who have a poorly developed regulatory system know, these youth are at a huge disadvantage and correcting for this damage is very difficult. If we have used harsh punishment and we can see that our child is more dysregulated, lacks focus, is more easily angered – yes, we should work to find ways to enrich their brains. So brain plasticity is an important thing to understand. But more importantly, we should prevent any damage in the first place.

  6. Reblogged this on Sleepy Mummy Owl and commented:
    I came a cross this, and thought it deserved to be shared! I am really glad that the parenting that feels natural to our family is finding its place as scientific fact!

  7. Genvev says:

    Not using physical violence does not mean that you don’t use discipline. Gentle parenting does not mean passive parenting. I constantly use discipline with my two year old in many different ways. I lead by example, talk to her (yes they actually can understand you whether or not they choose to listen is another thing) and sometimes through restraint and setting boundaries such as if she tried to hit me while I am setting a limit I gently take her arm and hold it saying “I won’t let you hit me” in a firm and even voice. Mostly works every time of course there are always exceptions. If there are children misbehaving at day care etc it may be that they have passive parents who are scared to set limits but it mays also be a dietary issue, not enough sleep, too much screen time or other insecurities that need to be addressed. I think its a rarer sweeping generalization to say that children who are spanked are calm and happy and those who are not are out of control. Really they are many more factors at play.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Many mentions of “loving mothers” – where are the dads in this article?

    • The research study was of mothers, not other caregivers. However, I think we can assume similar results with fathers and really whoever the primary caregivers are that the child trusts and leans upon for their well being.

  9. Blavins ~ This is just one of hundreds of research studies that show that spanking is destructive. Check out this link for an overview of all the research and commentary by the top two renowned researches studying corporal punishment.

    • Anonymous says:

      Also I would like to say these studies just state things as facts but how did they conduct the research? And anyone can see that children are becoming more aggressive today than they were 100 years ago. Would you say that that is caused by more parents spanking children today than 100 years ago? Or even 50 years ago? Or are there more external causes for the increased aggression? Did the studies take these factors into consideration?

      • Anonymous says:

        Also I would like to share this article: which states that stats show most parents today don’t spank. But one of your stats says they do? Who do we believe? Or am I mistaken?

      • As far as the frequency of spanking, the research you cited is difficult for me to evaluate, because I couldn’t find reference to the actual research. Frequency has been measured many, many times. Probably the best way to look at the research is to look at the cumulative summary results – meaning look at what the average of all the research shows. The research on average shows that 1/3 of parents begin spanking before the age of one, toddlers who are 3 years old are spanked the most, about 2/3rds of Americans report that sometimes a child “needs a good, hard spanking,” and 90 – 95% report having spanked their child at some time. Spanking is on the decline for all ages except for preschool children where it remains about the same over the past 15 years. If you want to review the summary analysis’ go to this link and you can check it out:

      • Violence has been on the decline for decades. Children are not more aggressive now. The opposite true. And probably because physical assault and physical punishment of children is on the decline. The belief that violence and aggression is increasing is a myth.

      • Anonymous says:

        Is that why people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors in the 50’s but now no one in their right mind would leave them unlocked?

      • I think it is important to avoid emotional beliefs about spanking and its connection to violence and to suggest that our parents didn’t have to lock their doors. Mine certainly did! I think that is a romantic idea of the 50s. I have not seen any research suggesting a link between a decline in spanking and an increase in violence – NOT ONE. I have read many, many studies showing a correlation between increased aggression and spanking. In general, research shows that hostile and neglectful parenting is destructive, leading to mental illness and increased criminal behavior. I have personally interviewed youth in the juvenile justice system and the Director of the New Mexico Juvenile Justice system. Essentially, every single child in the system is a victim of early (0-4) abuse and neglect. Every single youth I interviewed had been hit as a child, many brutally. Others had been profoundly neglected. Is your argument that if we spanked more, there would be less youth violence? If so, please share with me research that backs up this belief. The danger here, is that we are embedded in a culture that has normalized the hitting of children, so it is not a good idea to rely solely upon your general impressions. I think you have to look at the data to get a perspective.

        The ultimate irony in my mind is the idea that if you are violent toward your children, they will be better behaved and less violent themselves. There are more productive, sophisticated ways to educate children than to resort to hitting them. My granddaughter is five. I can’t imagine disrespecting her enough to hit her. The idea of hitting (spanking, smacking) her to educate her is shameful.

      • Anonymous says:

        I am not suggesting that is the only reason. I am saying the dynamic is so vast that there are too many environmental factors involved to come to a conclusion that spanking is the reason for violence. I find it extreme to say spanking is violent. Or anti-productive. I find that neglect and permissiveness is the main factor for the problems with youth today.

        Morals in society have declined and I don’t need to look at statistical data to know that. I have observed it firsthand. My parents and grandparents have observed it firsthand. No amount of data can convince me otherwise. To me it reminds me of a pots and pans salesman that tried to convince me that I needed to buy these expensive pots for around $1000. He had statistical data that showed how much energy the average household used in cooking. These pots and pans were so energy efficient that you could stack the pots on top of each other and conserve energy. The data was accurate, you could save money with them. And the sales pitch was that how could you afford “Not” to have them? The amount you save in energy over time will easily pay for the pans. At this party I seen many people buy into that pitch. Later they found they didn’t save any money. The problem was the people didn’t consider “All” the facts. They didn’t take into account that they didn’t cook a meal with pots and pans everyday. Sometimes they ate out. Sometimes they ate cold food. Sometimes they microwaved something quick. So although the data he showed was accurate, there were factors that were not considered. My point is that I’ve seen these studies show one thing and everyone jumps on the bandwagon and then later the study is reversed.

        Can you provide me a link to the alternatives for spanking? What do you suggest? I am not unreasonable and am open to more than one way of doing things but I don’t think spanking is what it is made out to be on here!

  10. You may not agree with the research, and often it is difficult to believe if it goes against your belief system. I do appreciate that you are open to alternatives. Check out our page on resources that offer alternatives:

    Another study just came out today on how spanking is correlated to health problems: Why health problems? Because spanking can alter brain development in young children.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and explore this site. I hope you will share it with your friends and family.

  11. Pingback: In Conversation with Robbyn Peters Bennett | CATHOLIC ATTACHMENT PARENTING CORNER

  12. Mirela says:

    People who believe that spanking is necessary for discipline should look at the (violent) crime statistics in the US vs European countries like Sweden and The Netherlands where spanking is illegal. Enough said.
    (Clearly, it is entirely possible to raise a whole generation of humans *without* using physical violence….)

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