Hitting Children Breaks a Child’s Brain as well as their Heart

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department. 

The poster’s title grabbed my attention right away. It was so simple and straightforward. In bold it read “12 Alternatives to Smacking Your Child.” No hypocritical, sugar coated message there. No tiptoeing around the issue by saying “12 ways to be more positive.” The poster’s goal was blunt: Don’t hit children, seething or not, find another way to cope, another way to parent.

At first, I chuckled at the poster’s plain talk, but it is not really a laughing matter. The title laid an assumption on the table – that there are times when a parent will want to hit their child.

The poster brings back soundtracks from my childhood around the neighbourhood and at home, “you are cruising for a bruising”, “keep that up, young lady, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Today, children still endure such threats, and many are carried out. Children don’t forget being hit, much less a spanking, but they are incredibly forgiving of adults who hurt them. It is an irreconcilable irony.

“Hitting is not, and never will be, an acceptable parenting technique. Period.”

Abuse not only plays emotional havoc on a child’s heart, but the latest research tells us that organs are damaged too. Whether the violence is verbal or physical, abusive experiences become seared into a child’s brain, into their memory networks. The searing interferes with normal development in all other areas of maturation. The brain’s neural networks can’t connect up in normal fashion, thereby impairing the brain’s ability to process information. This means that children’s skill mastery and concept development is hampered which in turn creates lousy impulse control and poor frustration tolerance.

The carving tool that interferes with the brain network is a flood of stress hormones released into a child’s bloodstream during an abusive attack. That fight or flight response is an innate survival instinct kicking in which the child has no control over. The fright and fear become a rush of chemicals carved into the child’s grey matter, disabling learning capacity, intellectually, socially and emotionally, ultimately impacting the child and others over the life span.

There are other good reasons for not hitting children to get them to behave. Bottom line, hitting doesn’t solve problems, it simply stirs the stew of conflict and power struggles, building resentment.  Moreover, hitting doesn’t promote a child’s sense of remorse or regret, important feelings they need to motivate them to control their behaviour. Resentment and revenge lead to an increase in children’s challenging misbehaviour, not a decrease. Hitting will stop a particular behaviour only for a short time and when adults disappear, the behaviour will usually resume, often escalating.  When children learn to obey out of fear, they don’t develop the ability to monitor and control their own impulses, creating a cycle of domestic and public violence that jumps from one generation to the next.

In the short term, hitting a child may reduce a parent’s tension, but once the dust settles, a parent with an ounce of compassion must be appalled at his or her own behaviour. The truth, however, is a lot of children get hit because their parent’s life is stress-filled. Parents don’t usually start out to hurt a child, but ordinary smacking so easily can cross the line of abuse before parents even realise it. The parent is caught up in his own rage and completely loses good judgment.

Children can get hit when an inflamed parent can’t take a swing at the boss or the neighbour who crosses the property line one time too many. Children can get hit when a parent gets cut off in the fast lane when coming home from work and for a myriad of other reasons that are out of the child’s control.

Frustrated parents, pushed beyond rationality, hit children because they are smaller than they are and often all in the name of parental rights.  Parents who hit children do it because, more often than not, the public stands by and lets them get away with it. We don’t report, we don’t reach out, we don’t help, and so children are let down by an ever-greater circle of adults.

In real life with real children, almost every parent, at one time or another feels like smacking their child and the urge to smack is very normal for humans, watch any toddler at play and you’ll see it can be a knee-jerk, first resort reaction. But an adult following through on the urge to smack a vulnerable child is a huge, unacceptable problem.

Physically or verbally intimidating children doesn’t help them behave correctly or become better people. It only teaches them that it is okay to use violence, especially if you’re an adult bigger than someone else.

It is always, first and foremost, the adult’s responsibility to lead children away from the dance of violence. Only then will our homes, schools and streets be safe from the storm of primal impulses.