Scientists find why you should not spank your kids

Credit: Caleb Woods / Unsplash

Corporal punishment can be simply defined as the “intentional infliction of physical pain by any means for the purpose of punishment, correction, discipline, instruction, or any other reason.”

This violence, particularly when inflicted by a parent, evokes a complex emotional experience.

Previous research has linked corporal punishment to a decline in adolescent health and negative effects on behavior, including an increased risk for anxiety and depression.

In a study from Florida State University, scientists explored how corporal punishment might impact neural systems to produce those adverse effects.

They examined 149 boys and girls ages 11 to 14 from the Tallahassee, FL, area.

The kids performed a video game-like task and a monetary guessing game while undergoing continuously recorded electroencephalography, or EEG—a noninvasive technique to measure brain-wave activity from the scalp.

Two years later, participants and their parents completed a series of questionnaires to screen for anxiety and depression and to assess parenting style.

As expected, kids who had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to develop anxiety and depression.

The study goes further to demonstrate that corporal punishment might impact brain activity and neurodevelopment.

That was reflected by a larger neural response to error and a blunted response to reward in the adolescents who received physical punishments.

Specifically, the study links corporal punishment to increased neural sensitivity to making errors and decreased neural sensitivity to receiving rewards in adolescence.

Previous studies found that increased neural response to errors is associated with anxiety and risk for anxiety, whereas the decreased neural response to rewards is related to depression and risk for depression.

Corporal punishment, therefore, might alter specific neurodevelopmental pathways that increase risk for anxiety and depression by making children hypersensitive to their own mistakes and less reactive to rewards and other positive events in their environment.

The work provides new clues as to the neural underpinnings of depression and anxiety and could help guide interventions for at-risk youth.

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The study was conducted by Kreshnik Burani et al and published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

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