Issue 65 / The Mental Side Of Physical Abuse

The Mental Side Of Physical Abuse

Nov 04, 2016

Physical abuse has always been the go-to discipline tool in our culture. However we take a closer look at the long lasting effects of corporal punishment that we may not be aware of. 

Four years ago, 14-year-old Mohammed Ismail died in hospital. Ten days prior, his teacher made him do more than 200 sit-ups as punishment for fighting with another student.

It was physical punishment meant to deter such violent behaviour in the classroom.

But that’s an extreme case, I bet you’re thinking. Surely corporal punishment — used reasonably — is key for raising a well-behaved child, no?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the recent incident in Muzaffarnagar where a 10-year-old disabled boy was “garlanded” by his teacher, who used a sandal, for not coming to school in shoes.

Or perhaps you might be aware that in the United States, 19 states still allow teachers to take paddle to bum.

Or perhaps you might be a parent who believes that corporal punishment might not be such a bad thing. Kids need a good whack when they get out of hand, right? I mean, back in 2012, a national survey showed that over 75 per cent of men and over 50 per cent of women in the good old USA believe a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.”

You don’t want to raise a delinquent, am I right?

The most common reasons why parents use physical discipline tends to be an inability for a parent to control their children, the frustration that comes as a result, and tiredness. Spanking just gets them to behave.

But does it really?

Lets look at the short-term and long-term effects on children who endure physical discipline.

Now, I’m aware that as a Caucasian male I have pretty much zero credibility when it comes to speaking about physical discipline within the South Asian culture, so lets just deal with cold, hard numbers and research, shall we?

Oh, and this quote: “The more this kind of discipline (smacking and spanking) is used, more the primitive brain is active, thus the thinking brain or the smart brain is not active,” says Swati Popat Vats, president of the Early Childhood Association.

Now for some studies and numbers.

A study from 2009 stated, “Exposing children to HCP (harsh corporal punishment — for example, at least one spanking per month for 3+ years, commonly done with a belt or paddle) may have detrimental effects on trajectories of brain development,”

The researchers concluded that children who were spanked regularly had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to addiction, depression and other mental health problems.

Why is this? Gray matter is responsible for one of life’s most valuable skills — self-control.

“The more gray matter you have in the decision-making, thought-processing part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex), the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences.” You can find that quote in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

So the irony is that the more corporal punishment you use to control your kids for their lack of self-control, the more they lose it.

Cultural connetion with physical abuse
Cultural connection with physical abuse.

Photo Credit:

A study published  in the Journal of Family Psychology found that after corporal punishment, kids were misbehaving very soon after. Thirty-three mothers were wired with digital recording devices for up to six evenings in a row to monitor their responses to their unruly children. Forty-one corporal punishment incidences were identified in 15 families. Also, the analysis of these recordings showed that in 73 per cent of the cases, after receiving punishment, kids were again misbehaving within 10 minutes.

In fact, the largest case study ever conducted on the subject recently concluded that, after 50 years of research by the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, spanking leads to a much higher risk of aggression, anti-social behavior as well as other mental health problems. 160,000 children were monitored over five decades, so researchers were able to see the children grow into adults and how spanking affected their lives. “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sad boy

Physical abuse is cultural, but does it have to be?

Photo Credit: 


So it doesn’t seem to work.

Then why do so many parents do it?

The study pointed to the fact that children who were spanked were likely to grow up to be parents who spanked their own kids.

According to a survey conducted in Mumbai, over 80 per cent of the parents who admitted to spanking their children were beaten as children themselves.

“Repeating parenting patterns of your parents plays a major role in spanking children. When you are beaten as a child, you tend to display the same behaviour,” says Swati Popat Vats.

It’s the my-parents-did-it-to-me-and-I-turned-out-fine mentality.

So how prevalent is corporal punishment today?

The survey conducted in Mumbai, which polled 1700 parents, found that 62 per cent of them use corporal punishment. Twenty-nine per cent of these people were fathers, and the remaining 61 per cent were mothers.

The survey also showed that children between the ages of two and eight were most often subject to corporal punishment.

Around the world, only 30 countries have banned corporal punishment of children outright — including inside the home.

But there are many others that still allow it, even in the school system.

In Canada, land of the polite folk: Section 43 of the criminal code states that, “Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”

Sounds a bit subjective, no?

Those school systems, which are meant to help develop the brains of children, are actually damaging them. And if you resort to physical punishment on your own kids, then you’re inadvertently damaging their brains too, and futures, as well.

According to the findings Human Rights Watch in 2014, “Ninety percent of the world’s children live in countries where corporal punishment and other physical violence against children is still legal.”

In a 2012 poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, 63 per cent of U.K. residents voiced their opposition to banning parents in the U.K. from smacking children.

 Main Image Photo Credit:

Taras Babiak


Taras is a freelance blogger, video editor and screenwriter. He is the co-writer of "Made In Bali," which recently won Best Short Film of the year from the Director's Guild of Canada. 


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