The Science Behind Why Corporal Punishment as a Child Affects You Even Now

I’m not going to lie. This was a hard blog to write after reading over several scientific studies about how corporal punishment affects children now and even into their adulthoods. I’ve tried to get as much information in this blog without overwhelming you with science. So, here goes.

IFB and Corporal Punishment

Most IFB churches determine that a child should start receiving corporal punishment beginning while still in diapers. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is preached at parents from the moment they step in the church doors.

It is also carried out in the IFB Christian schools where school administration, teachers, and even sometimes parents are invited to hit children on their backsides for being tardy, repeatedly missing questions on tests, and for perceived “bad attitudes”.

Children in the IFB know that all their IFB friends are being hit just like they are and sometimes are even forced to watch and/or listen to the punishment being dealt.

Add to this the emotional and spiritual abuse of being told that you let God down, your church down, and your family before being spanked and then forced to ask forgiveness for whatever “sin” you committed by praying to God and being repentant to the person who just hit you.

We all know it left scars on us now that we are adults but what did it do to us physiologically? How did it damage our brains and our ability to interact with the world around us?

Spanking Rewired Your Brain

Any child raised in the IFB learned early on not to show emotion. Anger was a sin. Sadness should be prayed away. Depression was the work of the Devil. So many slap on smiles and hope to sidestep landmines of corporal punishment. In addition, it also made us hyper aware of adults’ emotions so we could potentially head off a spanking.

According to a study at Harvard named “Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children,” published in Child Development, Harvard examined spanked children’s brain functioning in response to perceived environmental threats compared to children who were not spanked. Their findings showed that spanked children exhibited greater brain response, suggesting that spanking can alter children’s brain function in similar ways to severe forms of maltreatment. The study looked at 147 children, including some who were spanked and some who were not spanked in the beginning years of their lives, to see potential differences to the brain. By using MRI assessment, researchers observed changes in brain response while the children viewed a series of images featuring facial expressions that indicate emotional response, such as frowns and smiles. They found that children who had been spanked had a higher activity response in the areas of their brain that regulate these emotional responses and detect threats — even to facial expressions that most would consider non-threatening. (Source)

In this study led by researcher Jorge Cuartas, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he states that, “spanking elicits a similar response in children’s brains to more threatening experiences like sexual abuse. You see the same reactions in the brain".

Take a moment to think about that. Our brains have rewired themselves due to being raised IFB. Our brains perceive corporal punishment the same as other abuses including sexual abuse. We go into survival mode and our brain protects us as much as it can.

Mental Health Issues

Every child or teen eventually will suffer through some kind of depression or anxiety on either a small or large scale. IFB children are behind the eight ball when it comes to mental health. They live under a constant storm of guilt, fear, anxiety and more, and most of it comes from places that should be nurturing like their homes, their churches, and their schools.

It is also widely held in the IFB that it is the responsibility of the parents to “break the will of the child”. They literally beat you down until you give up all self-autonomy and just do whatever you’re told.

According to the National Library of Medicine, “physical punishment is associated with a range of mental health problems in children, youth and adults, including depression, unhappiness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, use of drugs and alcohol, and general psychological maladjustment. These relationships may be mediated by disruptions in parent–child attachment resulting from pain inflicted by a caregiver, by increased levels of cortisol or by chemical disruption of the brain’s mechanism for regulating stress. Researchers are also finding that physical punishment is linked to slower cognitive development and adversely affects academic achievement. In addition, physical punishment can cause alterations in the dopaminergic regions associated with vulnerability to the abuse of drugs and alcohol.” (Source)

Aggression Breeds Aggression

Have you ever seen a video of a rescue animal who was physically abused? They react out of fear and snarl and snap at their rescuers. We all know that no domesticated animal is born aggressive, it is taught to them by humans. Hit someone enough times and they will begin to think that is how all conflict should be handled. Spankings can turn into beatings if the parent is frustrated or angry enough. Welts, marks, and bruises are often not out of the ordinary. And as is often true, you do to your family what you were taught was okay in your family.

A study published last year in Child Abuse and Neglect revealed an intergenerational cycle of violence in homes where physical punishment was used. Researchers interviewed parents and children ages 3 to 7 from more than 100 families. Children who were physically punished were more likely to endorse hitting as a means of resolving their conflicts with peers and siblings. Parents who had experienced frequent physical punishment during their childhood were more likely to believe it was acceptable, and they frequently spanked their children. Their children, in turn, often believed spanking was an appropriate disciplinary method.

Many studies have shown that physical punishment — including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain — can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children. (Source)

This can also trickle into romantic or partner relationships where conflict can be handled by physical abuse. After all, that is all they know. Children in the IFB are never taught that physical violence is wrong but rather demanded by God. How do you know the skillset to handle conflict as an adult if physical abuse was not only allowed, it was encouraged and praised.

In Conclusion:

The Experts Say “No More”

Americans’ acceptance of physical punishment has declined since the 1960s, yet surveys show that two-thirds of Americans still approve of parents spanking their kids.

A growing body of research has shown that spanking and other forms of physical discipline can pose serious risks to children, but many parents aren’t hearing the message.

“It’s a very controversial area even though the research is extremely telling and very clear and consistent about the negative effects on children,” says Sandra Graham-Bermann, PhD, a psychology professor and principal investigator for the Child Violence and Trauma Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

Many studies have shown that physical punishment — including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain — can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children.

But spanking doesn’t work, says Alan Kazdin, PhD, a Yale University psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. “You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want,” says Kazdin, who served as APA president in 2008. “There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”

After reviewing decades of research, Gershoff wrote the Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children, published in 2008 in conjunction with Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The report recommends that parents and caregivers make every effort to avoid physical punishment and calls for the banning of physical discipline in all U.S. schools. The report has been endorsed by dozens of organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

The World Says “No More”

On the international front, physical discipline is increasingly being viewed as a violation of children’s human rights. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive in 2006 calling physical punishment “legalized violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings through “legislative, administrative, social and educational measures.” The treaty that established the committee has been supported by 192 countries, with only the United States and Somalia failing to ratify it.

Around the world, 30 countries have banned physical punishment of children in all settings, including the home. The legal bans typically have been used as public education tools, rather than attempts to criminalize behavior by parents who spank their children, says Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, a leading researcher on physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous,” she says. (Source)


Resource for You:

Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse by Philip J. Greven

Can be purchased here.

The science:


IFB Overcomers is an online resource for those who have left Independent Fundamentalism and are looking to heal and discover themselves. With a podcast, webinars, forum, blog and resources, we hope to help retrain your heart and mind from the mindset of the IFB and help you not only survive but overcome and then thrive!

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