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You Can’t Unhit a Child: Anxiety and Corporal Punishment

Child Abuse Trauma PunishmentA recent study conducted by Duke University researchers found that a parent being affectionate toward a child after hitting them doesn’t help anything — in fact, it hurts.

“If you believe that you can shake your children or slap them across the face and then smooth things over gradually by smothering them with love, you are mistaken,” says lead study author Jennifer E. Lansford of the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University. “Being very warm with a child whom you hit in this manner rarely makes things better. It can make a child more, not less, anxious.”

Researchers interviewed more than 1,000 women and their children between the ages of 8 and 10 in eight different countries. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, showed maternal warmth doesn’t diminish the negative impact of high levels of physical punishment.

It’s not shocking, I guess. I was hit as a child. Today I struggle with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. My first suicide attempt at the age of 12 was a direct result of the physical and emotional abuse. Being hit communicated that I was worthless. There are still days that I believe it.

“Generally, childhood anxiety actually gets worse when parents are very loving alongside using corporate punishment,” says Lansford, who suggested maybe it’s “simply too confusing and unnerving for a child to be hit hard and loved warmly all in the same home.”

The “confusion” I felt stemmed from wanting to believe my life was safe, but being hit communicated that I was unworthy, flawed, deserving of being physically hurt. The “confusion” also came from being forced to forgive.

I’m curious to know whether these mothers in the study actually apologized when they showed their child affection. No one ever apologized to me and not talking about these violent events made them all the more haunting and crazy-making.

Looking back, I rarely understood why I was being punished. All I could sense was fear for my life, and I had no idea when it was going to end.

Spanking has been linked post-traumatic stress disorder and short- and long-term behavior problems in children.

In a previous article regarding allegations that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson spanked his 4-year-old son with a switch, I wrote about Peterson’s mother, Bonita Jackson. She defended her son’s actions to the Houston Chronicle:

“I don’t care what anybody says, most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes. But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world. When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, it’s about love. You want to make them understand that they did wrong.”

What hitting taught me was that anger is a monster that can live inside anyone. I had to remember that or how would I avoid seeing the monster again? Don’t withdraw, react, shut down, mope — all these are things that would get me into trouble again.

Just like there is no way to unhit a child, there’s no way to remove the terror and the cognitive dissonance it creates. Hugging after hitting doesn’t just communicate the antithetical messages “your home is unsafe/your home is your security” — It communicates “I don’t hit other adults, but I can do whatever I want to you.” It says, “My striking you condemns you/my hugging you redeems you.”

“It’s far more effective and less risky to use nonphysical discipline,” Los Angeles parent educator Janet Lansbury told the Deseret News. “Discipline means ‘to teach,’ not ‘punishment.'”

You Can’t Unhit a Child: Anxiety and Corporal Punishment


Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review. She is also the cohost of the podcast Excuse Me, I Have Concerns where she discusses personal boundaries, personality and other psychology topics.


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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). You Can’t Unhit a Child: Anxiety and Corporal Punishment. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 25, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/you-cant-unhit-a-child-anxiety-and-corporal-punishment/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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