Little Children Are the Most Harmed by the Stress of Spanking

March 19th, 2014 by Dionna | Comments Off on Little Children Are the Most Harmed by the Stress of Spanking
Posted in Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting

Little Children Most Harmed

Early experiences have formative effects on a child’s developing brain. We often imagine that little children are resilient and that they don’t remember early experiences. But we are learning that resilience is developed through consistent, patterned, repetitive interactions with a loving and safe care giver.

Even though little children may not remember early experiences, these experiences inform brain development. Violence can activate the stress response in small children, particularly if there is no loving caregiver to soothe them. Caregivers are the “mitigating influence” that can prevent a toxic stress response in the brain. It is not the event itself that is necessarily traumatic, but rather the ability of the child to tolerate the stress.

Children cannot tolerate stress on their own. They depend upon the calming and soothing capability of their primary caregiver.

So when that caregiver is the source of threat (by spanking or yelling at the child), or when the caregiver is threatened themselves (such as in domestic violence), the child cannot effectively self soothe. If the child is subjected to situations where they cannot self soothe, it can put the child’s brain in a constant state of arousal. This state of arousal, if prolonged, can be toxic. Because small children’s brains are developing at such a rapid pace, a toxic stress response has a much greater impact. This is why spanking/hitting small children is so incredibly dangerous. This runs counter to the cultural belief that a little smack on the diaper isn’t a problem. The younger the child, the greater the developmental risk.

What may seem like “just a tap” or a smack
is experienced by the brain as a threat.

Preschool age children cope in large part through sensory soothing – touch, smell, movement, sound/music, taste/eating/sucking, and facial expressions. Their ability to sooth with words can be highly dependent upon how upset, hungry, overstimulated or tired they are. The more upset, the more dependent they become on somatic soothing. Any threat to their somatic experience fundamentally undermines their ability to cope.

Spanking is a serious threat to the somatic equilibrium of the child. The negative effects are not readily seen in the moment, but can show up later on, days, months and even years later – sometimes as late as adolescence.

The bottom line is, we must prevent violence early on. Negative experiences and toxic stress alter brain development the most pervasively in younger children, and these neurological changes are enduring and can be extremely difficult to change later on.

Understanding how important early experiences are, consider these alarming facts:

  • A third of all parents spank babies under one year old.1

  • Over half of all toddlers are spanked three or more times a week.2

  • On average, children are spanked until age 12.3

Spanking is a chronic stress for many children in America. It is toxic to them.

Researcher Murray Straus says, “Being hit by parents is a very stressful experience. Our mythology is that kids take it in their stride, and they do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful. Moreover, it’s not only a stressful experience, it’s a chronic stress. It starts, for a third of American kids in infancy, and the average age of cessation is age 12. So it goes on for 12 years. There is a chronic stress for 12 years, and that affects the brain.4

For more, please watch this video from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing child, which discusses the effects of violence on little children.

Also check out Murray Strauss’s recent book, The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime.


Robbyn Peters Bennett, LMHC, CMHS is a psychotherapist, educator, and child advocate who specializes in the treatment of trauma-related mental health problems resulting from the effects of early childhood stress, abuse and neglect. She is the founder of, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public on the dangers of spanking. She is on the steering committee of The U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.
This post has been edited from one previously published on

  1. Murray A. Straus, “Prevalence, Societal Causes, and Trends in Corporal Punishment by Parents in World Perspective
  2. Murray A. Straus, “Children Should Never, Ever, Be Spanked No Matter What the Circumstances
  3. Murray Straus, from “Research on Spanking” interview with Robbyn Peters Bennett, available via YouTube.
  4. Murray Straus, from “Research on Spanking” interview with Robbyn Peters Bennett, available via YouTube.

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