Smacking your children could traumatise them in the same way as severe forms of abuse, scientists say.
Scientists at Harvard University in America found kids who were disciplined with corporal punishment were more likely to develop mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioural problems, and even substance abuse issues.
The study by social science experts Katie McLaughlin and John Loeb found smacking and spanking children may affect their brain development in ways similar to severe forms of violence.
Dr McLoughlin said she hoped it would open people’s eyes up to potential negative consequences this kind of punishment.
“While we might not conceptualise corporal punishment to be a form of violence, in terms of how a child’s brain responds, it’s not all that different than abuse,” Dr McLaughlin said.
She added: “It’s more a difference of degree than of type.”
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The study has built on existing research that links harsh punishments with brain activity.
The scientists studied the reaction of 147 10 and 11-year-olds who had been spanked as a form of punishment, but who had never suffered any more serious violence or abuse.
The youngsters were examined inside an MRI machine while they were shown snaps of actors making fearful and neutral facial expressions.
The study concluded: “On average, across the entire sample, fearful faces elicited greater activation than neutral faces in many regions throughout the brain…and children who were spanked demonstrated greater activation in multiple regions of pre-frontal cortex to fearful relative to neutral faces than children who were never spanked.
“There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked.
“Growing evidence suggests that spanking is associated with deleterious cognitive and behavioural outcomes and changes in the neural processing of threatening emotional stimuli in children.
“The United States and other countries around the world should discourage the use of corporal punishment through public education and legal prohibition, following the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the robust scientific evidence on the harmful consequences of corporal punishment.”
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However, both researchers added: “It’s important to consider that corporal punishment does not impact every child the same way, and children can be resilient if exposed to potential adversities.”
Dr McLoughlin concluded: “We’re hopeful that this finding may encourage families not to use this strategy, and that it may open people’s eyes to the potential negative consequences of corporal punishment in ways they haven’t thought of before.”
The study was published in the latest edition of the journal Child Development.