If you’re ever at a loss for how to piss a lot of people off in one fell swoop, criticize parents for spanking. That will do it every time. I don’t exactly understand it, but there are a lot of people who are really, really attached to the idea that spanking is a good thing and no amount of research, data or reasoning will convince them otherwise. Because “I was spanked and I turned out OK!”*
I should say upfront that I’m not an anti-spanking purist. I have swatted a child on the bum a time or two myself and don’t anticipate that being what they end up seeking counseling for. However, over the last couple of decades we’ve learned an enormous amount about how our neural system operates that we were not aware of before. And whatever your current ideas about spanking are, we now know things that our parents and grandparents didn’t about the design of the human body which every parent should be aware of before they decide to use spanking as a discipline method with their children.
The first thing you need to know is that when you spank a child, you trigger their autonomic fight or flight reaction. It’s automatic and the child has no control over it. You can train them to suppress signs of this neurological state such as crying, pulling away or facial expressions of distress, but the underlying physiological reaction will remain the same. The thing to understand about the fight or flight response is that it is the same whether you’re facing off with a deadly viper or a large adult with a belt in hand. Whether you think that a fight or flight response is an appropriate reaction to spanking or not makes not one whit of difference. It’s the way our fearfully and wonderfully made neurological system works and is not under a child’s control.
What happens in a fight or flight state is that our bodies are flooded with stress hormones which increase respiration and heart rates. We often begin to sweat. Hormones stimulate energy to be released to the muscles. When a person’s fight or flight response has been triggered, their hippocampus – the part of their brain responsible for rational thought, decision making and learning – is no longer fully connected to the rest of the brain. The primitive, reptilian part of the brain takes over, allowing us to take in more information through our senses and respond quickly, without having to stop and think. All of this is designed to give us the best chance of surviving in a dangerous situation.
This fight or flight response is programmed and we do not control it. And it activates just the same regardless of the threat being faced is real or not. The fact that you’re spanking a child and not trying to hunt and eat them doesn’t make a great deal of difference to your child’s neurological system, which is, like the rest of their body, more delicate and less fully developed than in an adult. So although it’s likely not your intention, when you threaten or spank your child, you are putting them into a neurological state designed to protect them in the event of a saber tooth lion attack. Which may not actually be the relationship dynamic you want to foster.
But even if you are one of those parents who believe that making your child afraid of you is a good thing, there’s the practical implication of sending your child into a fight or flight state to consider. As I mentioned above, one of the things that happens in this state is that the thinking, learning, reasoning part of your brain goes off line. Obviously this is completely counter-productive for parents hoping to teach a child something. To the extent that you are teaching them, you are creating an aversion response. So the child may develop an aversion to whatever it is which triggered the punishment but it will not actually teach them anything deeper than that.
The other problem is that triggering this fight or flight response excessively will cause the response to be activated more easily. Which makes sense on two levels. One is that because of brain plasticity, every time you activate a specific neural pathway, you make it stronger. The stronger a neural pathways is, the more easily the brain defaults to it. And if you’re living in an environment in which your life is regularly endangered, responding to danger quickly gives you the best chance of survival. But when it’s a parent triggering this response, this adjustment is maladaptive. Children who experience it are going to be more fearful, more anxious, more hyper-vigilant, etc. If it’s happening often enough or over a long enough period of time, a process called kindling starts in which the neural pathways become so excitable that they will engage even in the absence of any perceived threat. All of this increases the likelyhood that the child will go on to suffer from disorders like anxiety, OCD and depression because their brains slip into fight or flight mode too easily.
Those people who advocate to spank until the child is fully compliant and repentant, as certain “Christian” teachers claim should be the end result of a spanking, are actually engaging the next step of the body’s autonomic response to danger: collapse/freeze. Collapse is what happens after the fight or flight response fails to resolve the dangerous situation. You see this in animals when they are cornered by a predator and they respond by playing dead. The collapse response is meant to be a deterrent (most predators won’t eat already dead animals). It also provides some psychic protection to the animal from the experience of being cornered and eaten.
The way collapse works in the body is this: as I mentioned above, when in a fight or flight state, our body is flooded with hormones which cause a surge of energy. When we cross over to collapse, the body essentially turns off its responsiveness to those hormones and shuts the system down. At this point, the hypocampus as well as the parts of the brain responsible for memory creation are almost fully disengaged. Cellular metabolism and responsiveness to hormonal signals slows. The child is working on auto pilot. This is a normal, protective response designed to protect us from traumatic situations. Dealing with your own parents isn’t supposed to be a traumatic situation. Even if the kid’s mouthed off first.
If collapse works and the danger passes, the body then sets about returning its neurological system to a normal state. Remember, a collapse state is characterized by the disengagement of significant parts of the brain which now need to be brought back online. There’s also the issue of all those energy producing hormones and the energy itself which are still coursing through the body. And at the cellular level, metabolic functioning is greatly reduced in a collapse state as the brain has signaled the muscles not to use the excessive energy created in the fight or flight state.So all that energy needs to be discharged, mental focus needs to be regained, and normal cellular functioning needs to resume.
In animals this neurological reset process looks like shaking, running in circles, jumping around and engage in other behaviors to work off the energy producing hormones created in the fight or flight state. In humans, this discharge will often look like sobbing hysterically, shaking, moving, screaming, throwing or slamming objects and doing other things that parents generally don’t let their children do after a spanking. This means that the child’s nervous system never has the chance to return to a normal state. Stress hormones remain in their bloodstream long after the event has passed, focusing and learning takes more effort and cellular use of energy and response to hormonal signals remains muted.
As is the case when a child’s fight or flight response is triggered excessively, when a child is pushed to the point of collapse, that strengthens the neural pathways responsible for executing the collapse state, causing it to happen more quickly in response to lower and lower levels of stimulation. Children who are brought to the point of collapse repeatedly may enter into a persistent state of collapse where all of their reactions are muted and they are no longer fully engaging with the world around them. Parents who discipline this way will often believe that because their children are quiet, compliant and still, these are signs that the “discipline” is working. Children who experience this are at high risk for Complex (Developmental) PTSD and dissociative disorders.
Now, some of you are protesting that this all sounds rather alarmist and cataclysmic in light of the fact that we’re talking about spanking a child. It’s not like parents are holding their children over a pit of hungry hyenas and threatening to drop them in or beating them with baseball bats, after all. (Hopefully) But we must not forget that just like children’s bodies are more delicate than adults and require special care, their nervous system are also more delicate and require special care.
At any rate, like I said, I’m not an anti-spanking purist. I have swatted my kids on the bum now and again. But people who are strong proponents of spanking generally don’t understand what it is they are actually doing to their children. Yes, you can get a quiet, compliant, still child by spanking if that’s your goal. However it comes at the cost of doing often permanent damage to this amazing nervous system which God gave us. There are many, many other discipline methods that parents can use to actually teach their children, help them develop self-control and proper behavior without running the risk of messing up the functioning of their neurology.
If you are a parent who would like to learn about alternatives to spanking, below is a list of resources compiled by Tricia Wilson that you can use:
- Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources http://www.littleheartsbooks.com/
- Elevating Child Care http://www.janetlansbury.com/
- Aha! Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham http://www.ahaparenting.com/
- Conscious Discipline by BeckyBailey, https://consciousdiscipline.com/?sT…
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish https://goo.gl/9U9cHl
- Scream Free Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Runkel https://goo.gl/gW6SVB
- Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Collected by Susan Stiffelman goo.gl/qnCOeK
- Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids by Susan Stiffelman goo.gl/Mc7VTx
- Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn goo.gl/n57O2D
- Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Laura Markham goo.gl/RwPgFM
- Heaven on Earth by Sharifa Oppenheimer goo.gl/8YYK6m
- Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Nurturing Our Children From Birth to Seven by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley goo.gl/BLJfMU
- Time In When Time Out Doesn’t Work by Jean Illsey Clarke goo.gl/Z4OAqj
- Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers by Deborah McNamara and Gordon Neufeld goo.gl/z7DOsY
- 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan goo.gl/k30E45
- The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis goo.gl/WecbdJ
- No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson goo.gl/HYYROi
- Parenting From the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Daniel Siegel goo.gl/3QAITW
- Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence by Lawrence Cohen goo.gl/lUibDP
- The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behaviour Without Whining, Tantrums, and Tears by Elizabeth Pantley goo.gl/FK0tPb
*My 21 year old son has the perfect snarky response to the people who the “I turned out OK” argument in favor of spanking: “you think it’s ok for full grown adults to hit small children. Clearly you didn’t turn out that ok.”