Breaking the pattern: How do we end the cycle of violent child discipline?

Wency Leung for the Globe and Mail

Research shows that physical punishment of a child can actually change the brain’s neural pathways, setting him or her up to use similar force as a parent later on in life. Ending the cycle of violence isn’t easy, but it can be done

U.S. football star Adrian Peterson says he’s sorry for hurting his four-year-old son. But saying sorry, while a first step, is not going to cut it. If he intends to refrain from using physical discipline again, he’ll need to do more than recognize the error of his ways – he’ll have to address the potential long-term damage he’s done to his child, regain his trust, confront the impact of the violent behaviour he experienced in his own childhood, and unlearn deep-rooted lessons about how to deal with stressful triggers of family conflict. To end the cycle of abuse, Peterson has a long road ahead of him.

The Minnesota Vikings running back was charged with child abuse last week for striking and injuring his son with a wooden switch. Photos published by the website TMZ show numerous whip-like marks covering the upper thighs of a child, reported to be Peterson’s son. Several lacerations had broken the skin. His lawyer has told reporters Peterson is a “loving father” who “used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced growing up.” Some supporters, such as former basketball champion Charles Barkley, have spoken out in his defence, saying physical discipline is a common experience in the southern United States. Strong voices have also emerged in the opposing camp: Former football star Cris Carter was among them, passionately arguing that experiencing physical punishment in childhood is no excuse for repeating the behaviour as an adult.

But breaking the cycle of violence isn’t easy. Experts say physical punishment not only erodes a child’s trust and relationship with the adult who’s dealing the blows, it builds neural pathways in the child’s brain that can set him or her up to later react with similar violence toward their own children. Spanking and hitting also teaches children a toxic lesson that the people who love them can hurt them – and disentangling the notions of violence and love can be a massive hurdle. As a growing body of research points to the long-term detrimental effects physical punishment has on the development of children, understanding how to break the cycle becomes all the more imperative.

According to a paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2012, physical punishment is associated with a host of long-term mental-health problems, including depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol use. And a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics that same year also showed a strong link between harsh physical punishment and an increased risk of mental and personality disorders.

Joan Durrant, an author of the CMAJ paper, notes these problems may be brought about by chemical changes in the brain’s response to stress. Additionally, her paper reported that physical punishment has been linked to slower cognitive development and may reduce the volume of grey matter, or concentrations of neuron cell bodies in the brain that are responsible for processing information.

Within the brain, when a child is spanked or hit, “there’s a pathway being formed instantly between the emotions that child is feeling, of fear and terror and threat, and the source of those emotions, which is the parent,” says Durrant, a professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba.

Learning to respond to such stress takes place at a neural level, she explains; a particular stimulus will automatically evoke a particular emotional response. So when adults who were abused as children are confronted with a familiar situation in which they feel out of control, they may lash out without thinking – and with far more force than they intended.

“Adrian Peterson says, ‘I didn’t intend to hurt him,’ but that’s sort of beside the point,” Durrant says, noting that parents don’t usually set out to injure their children; the vast majority of cases of child abuse are incidents of discipline gone awry. “The learning that goes on when children are punished is really profound,” she says. “In the short-term, the parent sees, ‘Okay, I hit him and he stopped doing it,’ but what they’re not seeing is everything that’s going on inside.”

That’s not to say everyone who receives physical punishment is psychologically damaged or hard-wired to hit their own children. But Durrant says lasting, negative consequences can occur, regardless of the severity of the punishment. Even a one-time slap can seriously traumatize a child.

Recent reports from the scientific community, including a 2012 paper funded in part by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s family-violence prevention unit and a 2013 study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan, go further, indicating that belittling and using harsh verbal discipline, such as shouting and using insults, can be just as damaging as physical discipline. That’s because the psychological impact can be more traumatizing than the actual physical injuries, says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a Toronto-based psychologist and author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. “It’s the terror, it’s the rage, it’s the hatred that seems to be pouring out of the parent. And we can accomplish all of that without laying a hand,” Radcliffe says.

Adrian Peterson says, ‘I didn’t intend to hurt him,’ but that’s sort of beside the point. The learning that goes on when children are punished is really profound. In the short-term, the parent sees, ‘Okay, I hit him and he stopped doing it,’ but what they’re not seeing is everything that’s going on inside.
— Joan Durrant, professor of family social sciences, University of Manitoba

What’s tempting about physical punishment is that it can immediately stop or reduce problem behaviour, says Katreena Scott, an applied psychology professor at the University of Toronto. But it comes at the cost of children’s self-regulation skills. “Kids actually get worse … at being able to control their own behaviour.”

What’s more, to continue eliciting that immediate reaction from their children over time, parents find themselves having to resort to increasingly heavy-handed forms of punishment as the children get older or as the problematic behaviour becomes more entrenched, says Scott, who is the Canada Research Chair in family-violence prevention and treatment. “It ends up leading to more problem behaviour, more aggressive behaviour, less self-control of the child emotionally.”

Yet, Scott points out, Canada remains one of the few developed nations where it is not outlawed. (Under Section 43 of the Criminal Code, force may be used as a corrective measure, as long as it “does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”)

It’s been shown that being aware of the potential harms may help deter parents from using force. In a study published online in January by the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas were able to significantly change the attitudes of parents who favoured spanking by having them briefly read short summaries of research about its negative effects.

Durrant has also found that when parents are given information that helps them understand child development, they are better able to override impulsive violent responses. “If I can keep engaging the thinking part of my brain and not just let my emotional brain take over … I can respond very differently to that behaviour in a way that will actually make things a lot better,” she says.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

And as with most attempts to change your own behaviour, self-evaluation is key. At Changing Ways in London, Ont., which works with men to end their abusive behaviours toward women and children, executive director Tim Kelly encourages fathers to revisit their own childhoods. Often they realize they’re unintentionally reproducing their own unhappy past, which opens the door to examining what they need to do differently, he says.

“They get stuck in this thinking that really [involves] attributing hostile intention on the child’s behaviour: ‘My child is doing this to bug me, or doing this to get at me, or doing this to embarrass me,’” Kelly says. “When you begin to question whether a four-year-old actually has that intellectual capacity to come up with those plans, they begin to see how ridiculous that thinking is.”

When he asks fathers to look back on whether that physical punishment worked, “What they’ll tell you mostly they learned is not to get caught again.”

Men usually end up at Changing Ways only when they’re in crisis, such as intervention from child welfare services or the criminal justice system, Kelly says. “It’s pretty rare that I’ll see someone who is self-referring because they woke up in the morning and said, ‘I’d better go and get myself some help.’”

Yet he notes those who are ready to change their approach to parenting will do so. The challenge is ensuring they have long-term support. Kelly likens it to experiencing a heart attack; the initial crisis may force someone to immediately commit to changing their habits, but the hard part is sticking to that commitment. Identifying people in their lives who have a positive outlook on parenting can help, he says.

In that regard, Peterson may benefit from looking to Carter. The Hall of Famer has been widely lauded for his impassioned speech against physical punishment on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown.

“My mom did the best job she could do raising seven kids by herself. But there are thousands of things I have learned since then that my mom was wrong,” Carter said. “She was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me. And I promise my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what [you] want [them] to do.”

Rick Mulvaney