Smacking Your Child May Affect Their Brain Development, Study Warns

by : Cameron Frew on :
Smacking Your Child May Affect Their Brain Development, Study WarnsShutterstock (Stock Images)

Being smacked by parents may affect a child’s brain development, according to a new study. 

Corporal punishment is still legal in the US. Within the UK, it’s banned in Scotland, expected to be prohibited by Wales in 2022, and allowed in England under the ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence – basically, it’s okay if parents don’t leave a mark.


While many people recall occasionally being smacked if they were acting out of line, new findings from Harvard University researchers claim it may have an effect on a child’s neurological development.

Pexels Pexels

Published in the Child Development journal, its purpose was to ‘examine the association between spanking and neural responses to fearful faces, an indicator of the presence of threat in the environment, using an emotional face task’.

Katie A. McLaughlin, co-author of the study at Harvard’s Department of Psychology, and other colleagues looked at children between the ages of three and 11, honing in on those between 10-11 who’d been spanked but hadn’t experienced other forms of violence.


As per the MailOnline, she said, ‘We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behaviour problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don’t think about spanking as a form of violence.’

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The young participants in an MRI machine and were shown a number of images of people being spanked and making ‘fearful’ and ‘neutral’ faces, with each child’s brain activity being monitored for each image.

The study noted, ‘On average, across the entire sample, fearful faces elicited greater activation than neutral faces in many regions throughout the brain… children who are spanked tend to exhibit higher levels of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems than their never‐spanked peers.’


McLaughlin said, ‘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.’

She added, ‘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.’

An NSPCC spokesperson also said, ‘There is clear evidence that physical punishment damages children’s wellbeing and is linked to poorer outcomes in childhood and adulthood. We would encourage parents to use alternative methods to teach their children the difference between right and wrong, with a positive parenting approach such as setting clear and consistent boundaries.’


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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Life, Parenting, US


Child Development and 1 other
  1. Child Development

    Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children

  2. MailOnline

    Smacking your child can affect their BRAIN development and disrupt the neural regions that affect decision-making and processing of situations, study warns