Spanking Traumatizes Children

06 December 2010 Categories: Blog, child abuse

It is almost the year 2011. A new year, one year into the new decade, 11 years into the new millennium.  It shocks me to the core and I take for granted the fact that mainstream society still holds onto corporal punishment like a tenacious toxic addiction that it just can’t release. It is egregious that in 2010, corporal punishment, “spanking” (or- let’s call it what it is- legalized child abuse), is still legal in children’s homes in all 50 US states and legal in schools in 20 states. Compare that to the fact that the same type of assault against an adult is illegal in all 50 states. While spouses, partners, parents, teachers, psychiatric patients, senior citizens, disabled adults, employees, soldiers, prisoners and all other adult citizens enjoy legal protection from assault, children under 18, our most vulnerable and developmentally fragile citizens, do not hold even this most basic human right.

Is it just ignorance or is there something more complicated going on that causes our society to view children as sub-human in status, not entitled to basic human rights protections enjoyed by fully grown people?

The Science of Trauma

Psychological Trauma is mental and emotional damage. Trauma occurs when a person or animal is overwhelmed by the fear, pain, helplessness, horror and/or threatening nature of an act. Trauma is subjective, which means that what is traumatizing for me may or may not be traumatizing to you, and what is traumatizing for you may or may not be traumatizing to someone else. Trauma occurs from enduring or witnessing extremely terrifying and horrifying atrocities such as genocide, war, torture, murder and violent rape. Trauma can also occur from seemingly mild experiences such as hearing a detailed story about another person’s abuse or experiencing a single shocking act of verbal harassment. Because it occurs on a continuum, everything from extreme atrocities to vicarious disturbance can be traumatizing, as well as all acts in between, including all acts of corporal punishment.

Take a guess which group of human beings are most vulnerable to trauma. Yes, children, the very citizens that the law fails to include in assault protection laws! In children, trauma often results in neurological damage as well as emotional and mental damage– In other words, trauma actually alters the brains and neurochemistry of children and re-wires their brains in a way that nature did not intend. Trauma affects children at every age and later affects every developmental stage of their life. In fact, the younger a child endures trauma, the more likely it will be that subsequent stages of development will be altered in a pervasive manner. Children are more vulnerable to trauma because at all ages, even in late adolescence, they are completely dependent upon and under the power of the adults doing harm to them- They have no legal right to get up and walk out, move out or run away. It is this helplessness and confusion about how a “loving protector” or a “just authority” can cause fear and harm that adds the final blow to the child.

Corporal Punishment is Holistically Harmful to Children

Other detrimental affects to children of corporal punishment, supported by over 60 years of research, include:

  • Increased risk of aggression and violence towards others
  • Increased risk of disruption of the secure parent-child attachment
  • Increased risk of depression, suicidal ideation and self abuse
  • Increased risk of homicidal ideation
  • Increased risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Increased risk of anxiety, nightmares, fears and compulsions
  • Increased risk of defiance, oppositionality and destructiveness
  • Increased risk of developing unhealthy character traits such as defensiveness, passive-aggression or unstable relationships
  • Increased risk of substance use and other addictive behaviors
  • Increased risk of sexual damage, including the development of fetishes
  • Increased risk of lowered IQ,
  • Increased risk of being physically harmed, injured, maimed, damaged or murdered
  • Increased risk of somatic (physical) and psychosomatic problems
  • Increased risk of spiritual conflict
  • Increased risk of domestic violence in adulthood, including using corporal punishment towards one’s own children in the future
  • Increased risk of politically and socially supporting policies that oppress children

As you can see, corporal punishment negatively affects children globally, developmentally and holistically– Emotionally, mentally, cognitively, socially, physically, sexually, morally and spiritually. It is clear that children have the most to lose from being assaulted; they have to pay a high cost to their bodies, minds, emotions, lives and futures.

Neuropsychological researchers have confirmed that any level of trauma can affect a child’s development. Trauma stores in the temporal lobe, which is the emotional, more impulsive part of the brain. The temporal lobe also shelters the amygdala, which produces our life-saving “Fight-Flight-or-Freeze” reactions. Because it stores in this part of the brain, trauma fails to metabolize or generalize to the part of the brain that can heal it- The prefrontal cortex, or, our thinking, rational brain. Therapy, counseling, reasoning and understanding all occur in the prefrontal cortex and therefore can’t reach the stored trauma no matter how many years of talk therapy and rationalization a person attempts. (EMDR treatment can heal trauma by accessing the memory in the temporal lobe and metabolizing it to the prefrontal cortex).

Why It is So Difficult to Abolish Corporal Punishment

So, what does this all have to do with why society seems so oblivious and ignorant to the fact that hitting children is wrong and harmful?

Childhood brains are complicated. Youth are naturally self-focused, which is normal and natural for their development. This protects them from being too overwhelmed at younger developmental stages at the enormity of the world. Children also believe, even in late adolescence, that the adults are all-powerful and know best. Because of this egocentric brain orientation, the belief that adults know best and the dependence children have upon adults for survival, children naturally believe that they are at fault when things happen to them at the hands of adults. Traumatized children develop unhealthy defenses to help them cope with the internal torment and confusion of the trauma. They reason with themselves that it must be them, not the beloved adult who they depend upon for love, education, justice or protection, that is responsible for any abuse they endure.

When these children grow up, their defenses continue to solidify and harden,  in some cases cutting them off from the pain they felt as children and leading them to align with the adult view of the “bad child” who “deserved” to be punished. When these grown children become parents, they may lack empathy for their children. Their trauma may be triggered by their children. Some adults may suddenly feel rage at their parents that they must suppress and rationalize as rage against their child- they may target their child as a way to punish the “bad” child that they believe that they once were. This may explain why some parents may harshly target a child that reminds them of themselves.

As a society, traumatized people are afraid that by abolishing parental and school corporal punishment they are condemning or disrespecting their own parents, grandparents and other elders from their past. They fear that by admitting that children today should be protected from legalized assaults, this indicts their parents and the elders of their past. People also fear this will indict them as well, if they have spanked, smacked, belted or whupped their own children. Because of this internal angst and conflict, society seems to feel more relieved when they keep laws that put the status of children and children’s rights below that of adults and allow the provision of lower level assaults on children. This is one of the devastating affects of trauma- a cycle of avoidance, excuses, fear and apathy.

Improving, Not Blaming

There are many things in society that we’ve improved upon, especially legal human rights protections for most adult groups. We’ve ended legal toleration for many forms of discrimination and in areas that still need work adult groups are passionately working for change. Ending corporal punishment against children is not about blaming and indicting ourselves, our parents and elders of the past- It is about raising awareness to the harm done by corporal punishment, opening our minds and hearts and feeling compassion for children, healing ourselves and others effected by it and moving towards protective laws, social justice solutions and loving alternatives.

Twenty nine countries have already surpassed the United States and Canada in abolishing all corporal punishment of children in homes and in schools, starting in 1979 with Sweden. In the United States, 30 states, mainly in New England and in the Northern parts of the country, have abolished corporal punishment in schools. At the time of this writing, a bill submitted by NY Representative Carolyn McCarthy, HR5628 “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act”, has been referred to the House sub-committee in Congress. It has a great deal of support by passionate child advocacy groups such as PTAVE, The Hitting Stops Here!, Teacher Complaints, and many affiliates and friends of these organizations (Note: In a future blog post, I will list as many of these as possible to recognize them). If this historical bill becomes law, corporal punishment will be abolished in US schools. There have been other attempts by legislators in individual states, such as Massachusetts and California, to abolish corporal punishment in the home, but these attempts were overridden.

Change Requires a Radical Shift in How We View Children

Abolishing corporal punishment is more than just refraining from hitting children. It requires a radical shift in the way we view children, in the way we understand their natural development and in the way we view their behavior. If we view their disturbing behavior as “badness” meant to anger us, the traumatized parts of us may seek to avenge the “badness” triggered from our own pasts by inflicting pain on our children. However, if we view our children’s distressing behavior as developmentally appropriate or as alarms signaling an immediate need or an unmet need, we will be able to respond with empathy, compassion and caring. Child discipline is guiding our children by example. The best way to teach nonviolence, peace, cooperation, love and respect is to model that for our children.

24 Responses to “Spanking Traumatizes Children”

  1. Kelly 6 December 2010 at 12:10 am (PERMALINK)

    Words cannot express how much I appreciate your article. I am a parent who has hit and yelled at and grabbed her children but from the first moment I committed the first of these offenses I knew it was wrong. When I tried to seek help and tried to talk about it I was met with many defensive responses from grownups, from “Oh that’s not so bad, don’t worry about it” to uncomfortable silence on their part. Very few of my friends and acquaintances admit to striking their children although the statistics belie that they have (and I know in some groups, spanking is not only “okay” but thought to be a spiritual requirement in parenting).

    I have experienced much reform and done a lot of work on this issue. You are right that the sub-human status we grant children, culturally, is at root of why we continue to assault them. This sub-human status is seen everywhere in how we treat children. You are also right this is a cycle. Thank you so much for speaking out.

    “society seems to feel more relieved when they keep laws that put the status of children and children’s rights below that of adults and allow the provision of lower level assaults on children. This is one of the devastating affects of trauma- a cycle of avoidance, excuses, fear and apathy.”

    Thank you so, so much.

    • Laurie A. Couture 6 December 2010 at 10:03 pm (PERMALINK)


      Thank you so much for your beautiful response. I really appreciate your bold honesty. It is people like you who help the world begin to turn in a direction of healing rather than continued pain. Thank you for the support, and I hope you will continue your journey to self healing. We all have that potential for violence inside of us, especially everyone who was hurt themselves as a child. The key is enlightening ourselves, becoming aware and connecting to empathy, no matter how painful, for our children and ourselves.


  2. Jenny 6 December 2010 at 1:17 pm (PERMALINK)

    This is a really interesting post. I was gripped when you said that while hitting a kid is legal, the same act is a crime against an adult.
    I’m a huge supporter of alternate education, of women’s rights and the rights of children in their learning environments. I hadn’t yet connected this dot, though, and I have to admit, it’s ridiculous to live with such a double standard.

    • Laurie A. Couture 6 December 2010 at 10:06 pm (PERMALINK)


      It is quite sad that society hasn’t yet grasped the hypocrisy in a double standard for children and adults. I just wanted to point out that I believe in human rights, not rights for one sex or one group of people. All people have suffered as children, as we do what we do because of that suffering. In order to heal the world, we need empathy for all people, and an understanding that healing children and young adults soon to have children must be a priority.

      I appreciate your support- thank you for writing!


  3. nadine block 6 December 2010 at 5:40 pm (PERMALINK)

    Bravo Laurie! We need a radical shift in the way we see children. You very ably point out the effects of corporal punishment of children. Ending corporal punishment of children is THE human rights issue of the 21st century.

    We need to value children. If we valued children, child abuse would be inconceivable.

    • Laurie A. Couture 6 December 2010 at 10:09 pm (PERMALINK)


      I agree with you that ending corporal punishment of children, and all other legalized forms of abuses against them, MUST and HAS to be THE human rights issue of the 21st century. This is a job us child advocates must take on, because children as a group have no real voice or power to do this themselves- Under 18, they have no real worth to politicians, since they can’t vote.

      Thank you so much for the support!


  4. T 7 December 2010 at 12:27 pm (PERMALINK)

    This is a great article. There are so many parents in the United States who want educators to keep their hands of their kids. I am stunned that the U.S. allows this in schools. Just because an educator can, because of immunity shield laws, doesn’t mean they should. It’s not healthy, not ethical, and morally reprehensible. To me it is almost a sickness, whereas everyone can justify it because they were struck as kids, almost like Stockholm Syndrome. And also Laurie, there was a recent news report by Real Sports – Bryant Gumble on hazing that occurs in historically black colleges amongst their band members. This news story sickened me so much I nearly vomited. Upper classman initiate underclassman into the band by beating their peers with wooden boards. Why on earth would these colleges allow this or turn a blind eye? The time has come to stop the violence. Now.

    • Laurie A. Couture 12 December 2010 at 6:45 pm (PERMALINK)


      Yes, The Stockholm Syndrome exactly! That is exactly what is happening to the victims, and then later, they identify with their abusers and pass on the cycle

      Brian Gumble’s story on the terrible hazing (another candy-coated word, let’s call it what it is- assault, humiliating abuse) in historically black colleges among band members is horrible- But the upperclassmen are just copying their former public school teachers. They are rageful and look to find weaker victims to act out their rage against. Sadly, it is likley to later be their own children, not just the underclassmen.


  5. Marcel 11 December 2010 at 5:45 pm (PERMALINK)

    In Holland spanking is forbidden.

    • Laurie A. Couture 12 December 2010 at 6:48 pm (PERMALINK)


      The Netherlands, 2007!


  6. Margot 12 December 2010 at 6:35 pm (PERMALINK)

    My children are now mostly grown. Despite being hit myself, I changed the dynamic and didn’t hit them. One thing that I tell parents: the first five years or so, not just hitting but helping them to reason is very labor intensive (those years are labor-intensive anyway… ) but after that, it gets easier, because an understanding of thinking not just responding, has evolved. I say, “If you think working with a 3 or 4 year old to develop these skills is hard, imagine trying it with a 13 year old.”

    • Laurie A. Couture 12 December 2010 at 6:51 pm (PERMALINK)


      If we have a nurturing, non-punitive relationship with our children from the very beginning of their lives, there is never a need for any punishment. If parents started off with punishment, the parent-child attachment cycle must be healed. Corporal punishment and other punishments only serve to further damage the parent-child attachment cycle.

      You are right that the older a child gets, the more defiant they will become if they have grown up being treated with aggression.


  7. Margot 12 December 2010 at 8:49 pm (PERMALINK)

    Laurie wrote:

    >You are right that the older a child gets, the more defiant they will become if they have grown up being treated with aggression.

    That’s an interesting point but I didn’t say that.

    What I meant was that using your brain, reasoning through problems, takes practice. When someone hits someone to evoke a positive response: whatever the need might be, the act of hitting is not going to evoke a thoughtful problem solving response but an emotional one. Children who are hit stop or modify their behaviors at least partially through fear. Fear, pain, anger: all emotional responses that don’t help thinking through and solving problems. My point is that starting and nurturing the thoughtful response takes years of effort and is best started in the early years, not later when force no longer works.

    • Laurie A. Couture 13 December 2010 at 10:01 am (PERMALINK)

      I think what I was trying to explain is that force NEVER works. Fear doesn’t really “work”, although on the surface it appears the parent is getting what he or she wants from the child. However, the fear response, like you said, prevents the thoughtful process. If children are handled in fear-inducing, traumatizing ways in the early years, they will not fully develop that thoughtful ability to problem solve later on.

  8. Susan 21 December 2010 at 6:04 pm (PERMALINK)

    Thank goodness for some sense and KINDNESS! Just recently I became aware of just how many children are spanked/beaten/whipped/belted/paddled/ and generally assaulted in the States …and how many adults actually think this is constructive and fine as ‘I was spanked and I am fine!’ !!

    Well… I am not fine. I was traumatised greatly by being spanked by my parents. Spanked with love ? Not possible. I lost my love and trust for them – and am still highly traumatised. I am 56! I was a good child – they spanked for silly things that as a CHILD I couldn’t help – spilling milk, not standing still when mum was attempting to brush my curly hair with no care at all to the pain she was causing me, and worst of all … as I was ‘just a child’ I wasn’t believed when I told the truth. And I always DID tell the truth!

    I am a pretty tough lady – but reading about spanking children, and even typing this post, my heartbeat is over double that of normal. That Flight Fight or Freeze thing. AT MY AGE !!!!

    As I said .. thank you for being a small kind voice in this harsh world.

    • Laurie A. Couture 23 December 2010 at 9:08 am (PERMALINK)


      Thank you for this heartfelt post. Thank you for your articulate way of illustrating how after all of these years, at 56, you are still having fight-or-flight panic reactions to the subject of legalized child abuse (aka “spanking”). I hope that your post gets this message through to any doubters out there who do not realize the emotional and neurological damage they are causing to their children by hitting them. I have found that too many adults do not view children as equally human as themselves. Adults expect children to behave as adults but have the status of property or slaves. Children are treated as if they do not experience pain, discomfort, boredom, anger, hurt, anguish and even love as adults do. In fact, they experience these feelings and emotions more intensely than adults. Susan, I suggest looking into EMDR treatment to help you heal from the fight-or-flight reactions of your childhood trauma. It is highly effective and powerful.


  9. John 16 April 2011 at 6:14 pm (PERMALINK)


    I’m most concerned since I’ve sought and recieved treatment for a spanking fetish that the Amercian Psychiatric Association is considering further softening of it’s wording in regards to its criteria for Sexual Masochism slated for publication in 2012 in the latest version of DSM V. One paper citing the proposed changes states, “studies which have been done show generally good psychological and social functioning compared with the general population and that sadomasochistic activity may be associated with reductions in physiological stress and increase in relationship closeness.” As it the APA attempts to unpathologize this disorder it invites continued incestuous sexual abuse by parents who may or may not be concious of their own spanking fetish.

    Here is a Canadian child abuse web link where she and then I shared our stories of childhood spanking that we experienced as sexual abuse. A few brave commentors shared the same experience of a spanking fetish from childhood spanking.


    • Laurie A. Couture 29 April 2011 at 2:10 pm (PERMALINK)


      It is concerning to me (but not surprising) that the APA is considering softening the symptoms of trauma resulting from child battery and assault. It has been documented for many years, especially by researcher Murray Straus, that hitting a child, especially on the buttocks, increases their risk of associating and fusing sexual arousal with love and pain. This is due to nerve anatomy as well as to the emotional and neurological affects of trauma, including The Stockholm Syndrome. Many children grow to align with their abusers and unfortunately pass that abuse onto the next generation. Physical abuse by hitting is not the only way children can develop fetishes- any type of physical, sexual or emotional abuse can result in compulsions that can turn into fetishes. The physical abuse by school teachers of refusing children the right to use the toilet has produced fetishes in children, but this subject is not spoken about.

      Fetishes are another of many ways that trauma symptomotology manifests, by the child repeatedly trying to replay the trauma into adulthood in order to have mastery, control and healing. Unfortunately, the fetish never alleviates the trauma and actually only reinforces it. I recommend EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) for all survivors of abuse and trauma.


  10. Mariquita 5 November 2014 at 12:44 pm (PERMALINK)


    I was born in one of the Central American countries. My mother was a single parent; she belted me constantly and I could see in her face the anger and hatred towards me. I have forgiving her, she had a very hard life. I am 69 years old, my life has been very sad because I have problems with depression. I have an incredible resilience. Thanks for your article. God bless you.

    • Laurie A. Couture 6 March 2015 at 8:33 am (PERMALINK)


      Your post saddens me. You certainly see how the cycle of violence is passed down, however, continue to understand that you were just an innocent child and didn’t deserve to be hurt by your mother. I would recommend looking into EMDR trauma treatment- It is very effective for healing trauma.


  11. Imad 30 November 2014 at 12:05 am (PERMALINK)

    Thanks for the wonderful article Laurie. I was brutally traumatised at home and at school and felt the negative effects as I grew up. These included painful shyness, absent mindedness, a tendency to daydream, feelings of sexual inadequacy, and substance abuse.
    I went through a period of self psychoanalysis and brought all those forgotten, suppressed memories of spankings (or a good number of them at least).
    My character has changed completely. I am far more bold and self confident, far far more relaxed and equanimous, and generally feel far more mentally healthy than I’ve ever felt.
    I’ve learnt my lesson. I don’t spank my kids and recommend thorough psychoanalysis to anyone who has gone through the same type of nightmarish childhood that I have.
    God bless.

    • Laurie A. Couture 6 March 2015 at 8:34 am (PERMALINK)


      I am so sorry to hear what you endured as a child. I am happy you have found relief. I would recommend looking into EMDR trauma treatment- It is very effective for healing trauma.


  12. whitney rhodes 3 March 2015 at 10:56 am (PERMALINK)

    I am only a Junior in Cane Bay High School and in my Psychology class is writing a paper on if we think spanking is effective or not! I think it is wrong in every single way! Why would you want to damage a child’s life that can affect them in the future? I do plan on having children one day but not right now and i will never beat or harm my child and make them disown me in their life!

    • Laurie A. Couture 6 March 2015 at 8:30 am (PERMALINK)


      I am happy that you shared your insights with me. The assignment sounds like it is more focused on whether or not hitting a child puts them under the parents’ control. That is like asking, “Is public flogging of slaves effective?” while completely overlooking the human rights violation in the first place of it being wrong to hit people AND to have them under one’s control. Of course hitting a child is “effective” at terrifying them and making them controllable, but it is also “effective” at damaging children and harming the parent-child attachment relationship. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether or not hurting someone is “effective” at scaring them into control, but is it ethical or in line with basic human rights to hit a child? The answer, of course is a huge, NO! It sounds like you are on the road to becoming a very caring parent someday.



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