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

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