In the colonial era, the Puritan belief that humankind is innately tainted by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve led adults to see children as contaminated by an evil element that needed to be driven out by force. Puritans believed that all disobedience and academic error was the work of Satan, and children’s innate proclivity for evil had to be destroyed through pain and humiliation. i
Corporal punishment is forced pain intended to change or punish a person’s behavior. Historically speaking, most punishments, whether in judicial, domestic, or educational settings, were corporal in basis. In modern days, corporal punishment has been largely rejected in favor of other disciplinary methods. In 1866 a teacher had struck a child 15-20 times with a whip. The parents of the child felt it was an unnecessary and brutal act on the teacher’s part and brought the case to trial in the UK. Although, the case was closed the effectiveness of corporal punishment in schools went under review in the public eye. ii Modern judiciaries often favor fines or incarceration, whilst modern school discipline generally avoids physical correction altogether. iii Sweden was the first European nation to abolish corporal punishment. It was abolished in most of Europe by the late 1800s. iv
Corporal punishment given to children by parents in their homes is called domestic punishment. It is generally referred to as ‘spanking’, ‘whipping’, ‘smacking’ as well as ‘slapping’. It is one of the most common ways of disciplining a child. A few parents argue, it helps children learn right from wrong and scares them from repeating a mistake again in future. There are many countries, such as Sweden, that have outlawed domestic punishment. In some counties, it has been restricted, for example children within a certain age group can be spanked. v
Psychological research suggests that corporal punishment causes the destruction of trust bonds between parents and children. Some researchers believe that corporal punishment actually works against its objective (normally obedience), as children may not voluntarily obey an adult they do not trust. vi
Adults who report having been slapped or spanked by their parents in childhood have been found to experience elevated rates of anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse or dependence, and externalization of problems as adults. vii Researcher Elizabeth Gershoff, in a 2002 meta-analytic study that combined 60 years of research on corporal punishment, found that the positive outcome of corporal punishment was immediate compliance; however, corporal punishment was associated with less long-term compliance. viii
Children First – Irish National Guidelines
The problem with the use of domestic corporal punishment is that, if punishments are to maintain their efficacy, the amount of force required may have to be increased over successive punishments. ix This was observed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which stated that: “The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse.” x
Children First Guidelines were established to define and recognize the limit of when interaction with a child may move into the realm of abuse. Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction, or lack of interaction, which is reasonably within control of a parent or person in a position or responsibility power or trust. Meaning abuse is characterized by injury (ie. Bruising, swelling, burns, abrasions, etc.) xi United Nations human rights standards prohibit all corporal punishment. xii
The AAP policy statement says “…reliance on spanking as a discipline approach makes other discipline strategies less effective to use.” Thus, it has an addiction-like effect: The more one spanks, the more one feels a need to spank, possibly escalating until the situation is out of control. xiii
As parents, it is important to consider this information when deciding, together, how to enforce rules and ensure your child’s safety.
The Diathesis – Stress Hypothesis
The Hypothalamic-petuitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulates the secretion of cortisol from the adrenal gland in response to stress. The HPA axis is regulated through a push-pull system. When a part of the brain called the amygdala is activated it stimulates the HPA system. When another part of the brain, called the hippocampus, is activated, the HPA system is suppressed. Because the hippocampus has glucocorticoid receptors that are sensitive to the circulating cortisol, it is important in the feedback regulation of the HPA axis in preventing excessive cortisol release. As the HPA axis is the main site where genetic and environmental influences converge, Charles Nemeroff proposed the diathesis-stress hypothesis of mood disorders.
Exaggerated activity in the HPA system is associated with anxiety disorders. However, anxiety and depression often coexist. In fact, this comorbidity is the rule rather than the exception. Indeed, one of the most robust findings in all of biological psychiatry is the hyperactivity of the HPA axis in the severely depressed individuals: Blood cortisol levels are elevated, as is the concentration of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the cerebrospinal fluid.
Could this hyperactive HPA system, and the resulting deleterious effects on the brain function, be the cause of depression? Animal studies are highly suggestive. Injected CRH into the brain of animals produces behavioural effects that are similar to those of major depression: insomnia, decreased appetite, decreased interest in sex, and, an increase in behavioural expression of anxiety.
Activation of the hippocampal glucocorticoid receptors by cortisol normally leads to feedback inhibition of the HPA axis. In depressed individuals, this feedback is disrupted, explaining why HPA function is hyperactive. A molecular basis for the diminished hippocampal response to cortisol is a decreased number of glucocorticoid receptors. What regulates the glucocorticoid receptor number? Genes, monoamines and early childhood experience.
Hormones and receptors
Glucocorticoid receptors, like all proteins, are the product of gene expression. It rats, it has been shown that the amount of glucocorticoid receptor gene expression is regulated by early sensory experience. Rats that received a lot of maternal care as pups express more glucocorticoid receptors in their hippocampus, less Corticotropin-releasing hormone in the hypothalamus and reduced anxiety as adults. The primary caregiver influence can be replaced by increasing the tactile stimulation of the pups. Tactile stimulation activates the ascending serotonergic inputs to the hippocampus, and the serotonin triggers a long-lasting increase in the expression of the glucocorticoid receptor gene. More glucocorticoid receptors equip the animal to respond to stressors as adults. However, the beneficial effect of experience is restricted to the critical period of early postnatal life; stimulation of the rats as adults does not have the same effects. xiv
Childhood abuse and neglect, in addition to genetic factors, are known to put people at risk for developing mood and anxiety disorders and these animal findings suggest one cause. Elevations in the brain CRH, and decreased feedback inhibition of the HPA system, may make the brain especially vulnerable to depression.
Due to the lack of proven effectiveness and the significant risk associated, many professionals advise against the use of domestic corporal punishment.
Here are some links with helpful material:
vii H.L. MacMillan, et al., Slapping and spanking in childhood and its association with lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders in a general population. Canadian Medical Association Journal 1999; 161(7):805-9.
viii E. Gershoff, “Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review, Psychological Bulletin, 2002; 128(4):539-579.
ix A.M. Graziano, J. L. Hamblen, and W. A. Plante. “Subabusive violence in child rearing in middle-class American families,” Pediatrics 1996; 98:845-848.
xii http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org, Hitting people is wrong—and children are people too. Retrieved April 10, 2007
xiv Bear, M.F; Connors, B.W.; Paradiso, M.A; Neuroscience. Exploring the brain. Ed. 3.Chapter 22. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Maryland 2007.