The recent story of NFL running back Adrian Peterson’s arrest for child abuse for spanking his 4-year-old son with a switch has once again raised the specter of spanking and child abuse. Good research over 4 decades has revealed that corporal punishment results in increased aggression, antisocial behaviors, mental health problems, and even decreased grey matter in areas of the prefrontal cortex. Perhaps more insidious and damaging are the emotional costs to kids who are hit by their caregivers. The following are the feelings I have heard from the mouths of kids in my counseling practice and retreats over the past 30 years who have been spanked, and also the behaviors that result from experiencing these emotions.
1. Anger: Kids who feel angry because of being hit by their parents often react in several predictable ways: become more defiant and oppositional; end up with a life-long problem with any authority figure; take their anger out on people who don’t deserve it, like siblings or friends; become more aggressive in their behavior; bully other kids.
2. Sad: Handling hurt feelings from being spanked can take on many forms: numb out or shut down; take on an: “I don’t care” attitude because it too hard to care and feel the overwhelming emotions; depression; become a pleaser who gives up their thoughts and needs to avoid parents anger/punishments, and eventually losing themselves.
3.Fear: Kids who experience being afraid of their parents anger and physical punishments often show these behaviors: learn to become invisible and fade into the background in order to not be noticed/avoid their parents anger; become overly sensitive to any anger or chaos around them, because these experiences bring them right back to past fearful incidents when spanked/yelled at; learn to play it safe and not take risks for fear of making mistakes/failing and drawing their parents ire; withdraw and not try new activities or social situations.
4. Discouraged: Children who are spanked a lot often appear beaten down and with low self-esteem. I have seen even young children already expecting to fail because of being around parents who are depressed, angry, critical, and who spank. These kids often have a hard time speaking their truth and standing up for themselves, and because their self-worth is so low, their ability to set healthy boundaries is decreased. This in turn can lead to putting up with abusive friends and dating partners.
5. Overpowered: Being hit by a much larger adult usually leaves kids feeling powerless because they have no recourse. They may develop a victim mentality, and lack the grit, confidence, and resilience to overcome future challenges and obstacles.
6. Out-of-Control: The context around spanking incidents may involve anger, chaos, and people who are out of control. Kids can internalize these feelings, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to control everyone and everything outside of themselves to compensate and create a sense of calm.
7. Unsafe: If your kids are afraid of you, good luck in getting them to feel safe enough to share their hurts, hopes, and dreams with you.
8.Unloved: This is the biggie, and the feeling that carries the most deleterious effects into adulthood. Kids tell me all the time they feel their parents don’t care about them or love them when they are spanked a lot. They may then develop trust issues with people in their lives, and have a hard time creating real closeness in all of their relationships, including a future marriage.
I have comforted thousands of kids and teens over the years that are feeling deep, intense emotions from being spanked. I have also met many adults who cavalierly state that they were spanked and they ended up just fine. But my experience tells me they have forgotten or buried the above emotions over the years, and unfortunately tend to repeat this pattern of corporal punishment with their own children.
There is never, ever, any reason to hit a child for any reason. It’s time to break the cycle.