The Impact of Punishments on a Child’s Developing Brain

Children and Self Control

Children do not develop self-control up until the age of 4 years. Even then, they learn what they see around themselves. Children need a lot of help and a careful upbringing to be able to control their actions and emotions. However, physical punishments are often used on very young children, even infants, to get compliance.

Threats and punishments are often used by parents, teachers, or other caretakers as a means of getting instant compliance and enforce disciplinary behavior in a child, but that is all the good it does. Corporal punishment has shown to be ineffective in yielding any long-term positive outcomes. But since the parent who uses this way of disciplining their child does not understand its ineffectiveness, they only keep increasing the intensity of their maltreatment to get the desired compliance. Such maltreatment leaves a mark on the mental well-being of the child for years to come.

The impact of punishments on a child's brain

Harsh corporal punishment (HCP) is the recurrent use of a belt, stick, or paddle to hurt a child without causing physical harm to induce discipline in them. It is differentiated from ordinary corporal punishment because it is much more intense and has far worse effects on a child’s development.

Studies show that exposure to HCP for a long time causes a reduction in gray matter in certain brain areas associated with depression, suicidal behavior, and some aspects of addiction. These areas include the prefrontal cortex, and the reduction in gray matter affects the development of social cognition and emotional skills in terms of mentalizing capacity, self-knowledge, and person perception. The person’s cognitive abilities like working memory, attention, and action monitoring are also affected. Corporal punishment also negatively affects a child’s educational performance. Children who were repeatedly exposed to threats and punishments had low math grades.

Physical punishment also stems from aggressive behavior against parents, siblings, peers, and spouses. Evidently, physical punishment in children affects their behavioral pattern in the long-term even when the assault has been discontinued since they have outgrown the abusive environment.

PTSD

Abuse and resulting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manifests in a reduction of hippocampus volume resulting in short-term memory deficits. Neglect and abuse early in life causes an increase in the cortisol levels and disrupts the functioning of the HPA axis that is responsible for the body’s central stress response. Normally, acute stress increases a person’s cortisol levels to initiate the fight and flight response and lowers to a normal baseline level when the stressful condition is over. However, recurrent stress causes an alteration in the baseline level of cortisol production resulting in higher cortisol and all times to have fewer fluctuations. Such hormonal fluctuations make the children hyperreactive to stress and decrease their capability to cope with stress. It is difficult for these kids to adapt to novel circumstances. Controlling their emotions is also a challenge.

Dysregulation of the stress systems i.e., the HPA axis causes structural and functional changes in brain regions involved in the emotion process including the amygdala, anterior cingulate gyrus, and those in executive functions including the basal ganglia and frontal cortex. This is due to abnormal levels of glucocorticoids which is the end-product of the HPA axis. Neuronal changes can also occur in the white matter tracts connecting these parts, thus disturbing their communication, and in the stress control center itself, thus leading to further dysregulation of the stress response. Individuals who are regularly exposed to maltreatment, punishments, and threat have a higher risk for psychopathology as they are unable to differentiate between threat and safety due to abnormal/elevated fear conditioning.

As evident from the above discussion and the consistently available research, child who are forced to live in an abusive or extremely strict household (i.e., use of force to elicit compliance) suffer from a range of negative consequences. Unhealthy adulthood relationships are also often stemmed from unhealthy parent-child relationships.

Chronic stress (through threats and punishments) alters the brain structure, which in simple words is a trauma to the neural composition, leads to impairment of brain function that will generally be perceived as dull-mindedness, immorality, or lack of integrity. But these are, in fact, the consequences of the trauma.

What children need

When a child is brought up by parents who easily lose their temperament, or punishes every time they go out of line, they become habitual of such behavior and may expect the same from every individual they come across. As the saying goes “once bitten, twice shy”, these children grow up to be distant and anti-social. Or may indulge in unhealthy ways of socializing when they finally feel the need to socialize.

In life, we need peers, partners, friends, and family to live with, to care for, and to be cared for. We need to interact with strangers to get by the day. Socializing is a huge part of our survival. And there may be multiple right ways to do it, but there are also many wrong ways to do it, that either harms oneself or the other person.

Parents are responsible for a child’s development and learning. Therefore, they must also learn the right ways to bring up a child. Children learn from example and their caretakers are the ones they will learn to maintain healthy relationships from. It is important to understand one’s responsibilities when bringing up a child.

References:

1 A., Rajalakshmi. (2018). A Review of the Effects of Corporal Punishment on Brain Development in Young Children. International Journal of Advanced Scientific Research and Management. 3. 28-32.

2 Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne184(12), 1373–1377. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.101314

3 Bugental, D. B., Martorell, G. A., & Barraza, V. (2003). The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment. Hormones and Behavior, 43(1), 237–244. doi:10.1016/s0018-506x(02)00008-9 

4 Cassiers, L., Sabbe, B., Schmaal, L., Veltman, D. J., Penninx, B., & Van Den Eede, F. (2018). Structural and Functional Brain Abnormalities Associated With Exposure to Different Childhood Trauma Subtypes: A Systematic Review of Neuroimaging Findings. Frontiers in psychiatry9, 329. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00329

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