By STACEY PATTON
I’m not saying that you’re a bad parent if you spank your child/ren. But if you are raising a daughter, you might want to know how your decision to use physical punishment might alter the architecture of her brain and negatively impact her sexual development.
For nearly two decades, there’s been extensive research on how physical discipline, unpredictable environments, and chronic stress impacts children’s brain development. Constant hollering, belittling, threatening, and hitting your child sets off biochemical responses to stress that can change the physiology of your child’s brain and lay the groundwork for a low I.Q., a quick temper, aggressive and delinquent behavior, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, an inability to regulate impulses, dysfunctional relationships, and early intrusive sexual thoughts and activities.
Earlier this summer I presented at a two-day conference on corporal punishment hosted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine where I was introduced to the research of Dr. Leslie Seltzer, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Child Emotion Lab. Seltzer and her colleagues are part of a cohort of researchers that have been studying how stressful parent-child contact can overload a child’s body with certain hormones. One of those is cortisol, a hormone that helps the body prepare to fight, flee, or freeze in response to danger or even the threat of danger. Children who are spanked don’t have the option to flee or fight – they must submit to the pain and violence without grabbing, blocking, or defending against the assault to their body. Corporal punishment triggers the release of cortisol.
Having elevated levels of cortisol for a short period of time is okay, but if this fear response is experienced repeatedly it can damage a young brain and lead to diseased neural networks. Researchers also say that repeated elevations of cortisol can result in a child becoming sensitized to fear, making it easier for them to experience danger and pain and normalize abnormal behavior. Think about how many adults who were hit as children can’t remember the trauma and fear they actually felt at the time but say that being hit was a “good” for them because they’ve only held onto the rationalizations used to justify the violence against them.
In her lab experiments where she placed adolescent boys and girls in a stressful situation and then took samples of their saliva and urine, Seltzer surprisingly found that girls with histories of harsh physical discipline didn’t experience the cortisol rush that we would expect. Instead, that group had a huge spike of oxytocin, known as the “comfort” or “cuddle” or “love” hormone that causes people to feel emotionally bonded to each other, and acts as the body’s built-in counter to stress.
Seltzer and her colleagues discovered that when placed under a stressful situation, the oxytocin levels in girls with a history of harsh physical discipline nearly tripled from their baseline, which was already three times higher than the baseline levels of girls that had no history of harsh physical discipline. (The researchers found no differences in hormonal changes in the boys they compared.)
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that gets released into the bloodstream when you experience warm feelings like love, trust, security, attachment, comfort, and protection. Our levels of oxytocin surge when we hug, kiss, have sex, give birth, and breastfeed. A surge in this hormone known for sexual pleasure is not the sort of thing you expect to happen to a girl when she is threatened or hit by a parent or guardian.
So how does this happen, and why is this a hormonal recipe for disaster for girls?
When you threaten or hit your daughter, her limbic system – the part of that brain that controls emotions, memories, and arousal – gets activated into a state of hyper-vigilance and readiness to respond to danger. Her amygdala gets the message that danger is coming and generates an emotional response that releases oxytocin. Over time, as her brain develops, this ripple of hormonal changes can permanently wire her brain to cope with this harsh treatment. Her nervous system will run on a continuous high because she will constantly anticipate more threats.
Hitting your daughter can not only impair her sense of trust and self-confidence, it is embarrassing, humiliating, and sends confusing messages about boundaries and her right to bodily integrity. Eventually, your daughter may experience emotional and cognitive numbing as she internalizes distress and aggression. Her self-esteem will be wounded and her spirit will be broken even as she develops a “hard” or “tough” or a so-called “strong black woman” exterior at an early age.
Researchers have found that adolescent and teenage girls who have histories of harsh physical discipline have been found to have higher levels of intrusive sexual thoughts, consumption of porn, and masturbate more frequently. Having higher levels of oxytocin causes early puberty and removes inhibitions around her decisions to engage in risky sexual activity. The stress of being threatened and hit has damaged her brain and so she may struggle to compartmentalize her sexual preoccupations, control her impulses, and refrain from temptation.
If you repeatedly subject your daughter to threats and hitting, she might end up coping with this stress by seeking out ways to escape it. She may find other forms of support, namely relationships which might put her at risk for engaging in risky sexual behavior, teen pregnancy, and choosing aggressive, violent partners later in life.
The irony is that so many parents whoop their kids thinking it will keep them from being “bad” and prevent these very behaviors! All children need discipline, but not the kind that rewires their physical and mental hard drives for at-risk behaviors or damages their ability to function in healthy ways.
Spare the rod. TALK with your child. LISTEN to them. Hit the keyboard and learn some things about child development so that you won’t place unreasonable expectations on your kid(s). Try to understand, even when their behavior makes you angry or scared. They’re growing up and don’t know what to do. As their parent, you are growing up with them. Hitting, cursing, yelling, and threatening damages that precious parent-child emotional bond, and potentially causes the kind of problems you’re just trying to prevent in the first place.
This article focused on girls, but hitting is equally damaging to boys. In my next piece I will discuss research that shows how boys who are hit by their mothers also experience brain alterations that put them at an increased risk of hitting their significant others later in life.
Stacey Patton, Ph.D. is a senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She is the author of That Mean Old Yesterday—A Memoir and the creator of www.sparethekids.com.