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Disciplining Your Child

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

The Impact of Spanking on a Child’s Brain

Excerpted from Discipline with Love & Limits © 2015 by Jerry L. Wyckoff and Barbara C. Unell, with permission from Meadowbrook Press.

This is what happens when a child experiences violence: the bullying behavior triggers a fear response that arouses an autonomic, built-in physical reaction, and a child will do what the adult wants just to “put out the fire” of the stress reaction in his brain and body. The sequence of the stress response looks like this:

  1. An adult threatens or actually spanks, swats, or slaps a child.

  2. The child perceives this action as a threat.

  3. The fear part of his brain says, “DANGER!”

  4. His body and brain react to this danger with a fight-or-flight response, telling him he must either hit back or run away.

  5. The fight-or-flight response causes his blood pressure to increase, his heart rate to go up, and his stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) to increase. This stress reaction also causes other physical changes-including changes to his brain.

Stress psychologists have found a biological explanation for this. The part of the brain most affected by stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of the brain. So children who grow up in stressful environments-including environments in which they are spanked-generally find it harder to concentrate, sit still, rebound from disappointment, and follow directions. And above all, they find it harder to self-regulate, meaning to exercise self-control.

In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough reports the following:

When kindergarten teachers are surveyed about their students, they say that the biggest problem they face is not children who don’t know their letters and numbers; it is kids who don’t know how to manage their tempers or calm themselves down after provocation. In one national survey, 46% of kindergarten teachers said that at least half of the kids in their class had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, such as kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week.1

And there’s no shortage of other alarming statistics about the effects of spanking on children’s behavior and health: a meta-analysis of 88 scientific studies over 62 years found a remarkable 94 percent consensus that spanking is significantly associated with the following undesirable behaviors and experiences:2

  1. Decreased moral internalization

  2. Increased child aggression-defined as argumentative, disobedient, and cruel behavior; destroying things, physically attacking people, and screaming

  3. Increased child delinquent and antisocial behavior

  4. Decreased quality of the relationship between parent and child

  5. Decreased child mental health

  6. Increased risk of being a victim of physical abuse

  7. Increased adult aggression

  8. Increased adult criminal and antisocial behavior

  9. Decreased adult mental health

  10. Increased risk of abusing own child or spouse

  11. Increased drug and alcohol abuse

All of these behaviors are related to the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and its importance in regulating impulses, including a child’s moral development. According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, the lowest level of moral development is “following rules only to avoid punishment. The highest level is following rules because they are right and good. “4 When parents spank their children for misbehavior, they stop their children at the lowest level of moral development. The children are interested in avoiding punishment, not in doing what is good or right.

  1. Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

  2. “The Psychology of Spanking,” Online Psychology Degrees,


Jerry Wyckoff is a child psychologist who was helped parents and their children for more than 40 years and has co-authored five books on parenting with Barbara Unell.

Barbara C. Unell is a parent-educator and journalist who co­founded TWINS Magazine and Kansas City Parent and has co­authored over a dozen books on parenting. She has also helped launch social-emotional development programs for parents, educators, and children, including Uncle Dan’s Report Card and Kindness is Contagious … Catch It!

Meadowbrook Press is an award-winning publisher specializing in pregnancy & childbirth, baby names, parenting & childcare and children’s books and poetry.

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