Spanking Traumatizes Children

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.