Note: This is part of our ongoing series of potentially controversial posts. While this particular post was written by Mom Meet Mom co-founder Julia, the experiences and opinions expressed therein are hers and not necessarily those of Mom Meet Mom and its staff.
TL; DR: spanking produces a scaled-down version of the same harmful psychological effects of full-blown child abuse.
Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in a household that, from the outside, appeared to be perfectly normal. From the inside, we were anything but – my mom was bipolar, had suffered from postpartum psychosis, and, having grown up in the 1950s, was staunchly against seeing a therapist. Add to that two stubborn kids and a hefty dose of stress and isolation, and what we ended up with was a powder keg where explosions took the form of physical and emotional abuse.
My sister and I were beat up, yelled at, mocked, and threatened off and on for the better part of a decade. Yes, it included spanking, but there was more to it, too. I can’t speak for my sister, but I remember my mom smothering me, inducing vomiting by forcing her fingers down my throat, threatening my life at knifepoint, etc. Twenty years since the abuse stopped, and 15 years since my mother’s death, and I still struggle with the effects of the abuse – and I don’t mean that sometimes I have off days and feel sad, I mean that every single day I struggle to function as a woman and a mother, and by the end of the day I am emotionally exhausted from the effort of trying not to screw up.
Lots of people have suffered worse abuses than me, and everyone copes differently, but this is my story.
I learned to believe that I am worthless.
One of the things I heard again and again as a child was, “I wish you had never been born.” This was occasionally backed up with very believable death threats, or the occasional, “I will kill you and then kill myself,” double whammy. At some point, I internalized this assertion – since my own mother deemed my existence an awful mistake, I came to believe that I was a horrible drain on the people around me, and that everyone would be better off if I died. I developed what was later diagnosed as major depression. I went to great lengths planning my suicide, but was never able to come up with a strategy that wouldn’t, in the very least, be inconvenient for the person who found me. Since suicide didn’t work out, I settled on cutting. I still struggle with depression, self harm, and suicidal ideation to this day. Actually, I’d managed to go 17 years without cutting, but the stress, sleep deprivation, and isolation of being a new mom threw me right back into the mental state I had worked so hard to escape. I could practically hear my mother’s voice calling me a failure when, after a desperate day with a colicky baby, I started carving lines into the flesh of my upper arm.
As it turns out, this is all completely normal for someone in that situation – the adult survivors of childhood abuse are 2.5 times more likely to develop depression (Afifi, Boman, Fleisher, & Sareen, 2009), and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide (Felitti et all., 1998), and there is a strong causal relationship between childhood abuse and deliberate self harm (Fliege, Lee, Grimm, and Lapp, 2009).
Here’s where things get interesting. Among adults who have no history of being abused, the research suggests that simply being spanked produces a less intense version of the feelings I have. Large scale population studies, the kind with thousands of participants, have found that kids who are spanked are significantly more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders (MacMillan et al., 1999), experience depression (Straus, 1995), and have substance abuse problems as adults (MacMillan et al., 1999).
I learned to try to erase myself.
As with many abuse victims, I learned early on to keep a low profile at home. I remember that, as a kid, one of my favorite things to do was to climb a tree and read a book. I was out of the house, out of sight. When I couldn’t hide, I made every effort to take care of myself. I still generally will not ask for help unless a situation is absolutely desperate. I’ll even turn down well-meaning offers of assistance – right now, my poor partner suffers because he and I haven’t managed to go on a date in over 3 years. When I couldn’t manage to take care of myself, I tried to make up for my imposition on the universe by being superlative – good grades, charitable, taking care of anyone and everyone, pouring my heart into making things better. Certainly not the worst set of traits, but it’s exhausting to feel that if I can’t be perfect, I’d be better off dead.
Again, I’m not unusual here – 43% of kids who run away from home report having experienced physical abuse (Molnar et al., 1998). But, for those parents out there who are thinking about spanking their kids, note that you don’t have leave a mark in order to motivate your kids to leave home; even without abuse, conflict with parents may be sufficient to convince a kid that they are better off on the streets than at home (Westat, Inc. 1997).
I learned to be violent when frightened or angry.
I just want to start by saying that, as a mom, this is really hard to admit, but, here goes: most of the time, I am able to keep my feelings under control. Actually, to be honest, my handle on my feelings is probably too controlled; I hardly ever cry, and I hardly ever laugh out loud. I’m afraid of big emotions because when I have really strong negative feelings, it’s very hard for me to stop myself from screaming, slapping, punching, or choking. Let me say for the record: I do not hit my kids. But what kills me is that even though I do not and will not hit my kids, I can’t shake the violent thoughts. No matter how hard I try to change, when my daughter is in the thick of a massive tantrum about how we are having tacos when she wanted hamburgers and she throws her plate on the floor, the first response my brain suggests is to slap her in the face. And the fact that I would even think about intentionally causing harm to my sweet, smart, tiny little preschooler makes me want to drink myself into a coma.
Sadly, this is one case where I distinguish myself from other victims of abuse – not because I have these thoughts, but because I don’t act on them. Adults who experienced abuse as children are significantly more likely to abuse their own children (Pears and Capaldi, 2001). But, once again, my mom didn’t need to smother me with pillows or hold a knife to my throat to make me violent. Kids who are spanked just once or twice a week are significantly more likely to engage in violent, antisocial behavior, even among well-to-do families that are otherwise emotionally supportive (Straus, Sugarman, and Giles-Sims, 1997).
I learned that I am never safe with other people.
To this day, I struggle with feeling of fear and anxiety when I find myself in a large (or even not-so-large) group of people. Panic attacks in the grocery store? Yeah, I’ve done that. And that’s not all – even when I am with just one person, I assume that they are likely to get angry, even try to hurt me. I get fearful and defensive, especially if someone raises their voice.
Briere and Runtz (1988) found that women who were abused as children are much more likely to report feelings of shyness and self-consciousness than were people who were not abused. These women are also more likely to struggle with anxiety (McCauley et al., 1997). I’ve already referenced the association between spanking and anxiety disorders (MacMillan, 1999).
I learned that I am not worthy of love.
I feel this constant need to be perfect for my friends and for my husband. I worry that any mistake will be the excuse someone needed to abandon me, and I hold myself to a ridiculous standards because I believe that no one could love me as-is. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I knowingly allow people to mistreat, take advantage of, and even abuse me rather than risk losing a friendship or relationship by asking them to stop. I’ve been divorced twice, despite my young age.
No surprise here: the data suggest that kids who are abused grow up into adults who are abused – women, especially, are about twice as likely to experience violence as adults if they were victimized as kids (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004). Abuse victims are also are more likely to get divorced, more likely to walk out on their romantic partners, and more likely to cheat (Colman & Spatz-Wisdom, 2004).
People who were spanked as kids? Well, when they experience conflict in their marriages, they are more likely to respond with physical and verbal aggression, and they have a harder time imagining the conflict from their spouse’s perspective (Cast, Schweingruber, & Berns, 2006).
Here’s the thing – yes, the abuse I experienced went beyond “normal” spanking, but the research shows that spanking does the same things as the intense, repeated abuse I experienced. So tell me: do you really want your kids to learn even scaled-down versions of what I learned? Is it worth opting for the quick fix of smacking your kid for misbehavior rather than figuring out how to be firm without being rough?
After my experiences? I say no. I will not spank my children. Not ever.
Afifi, T., Boman, J., Fleisher, W., & Sareen, J. (2009). The relationship between child abuse, parental divorce, and lifetime mental disorders and suicidality in a nationally representative adult sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 139-147.
Briere, J. & Runtz, M. (1988). Multivariate correlates of childhood psychological and physical maltreatment among university women. Child Abuse and Neglect, 12, 331-341.
Cast, A.D., Schweingruber, D., & Bern, N. (2006). Childhood physical punishment and problem solving in marriage. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21(2), 244-261.
Colman, R.A. & Spatz-Wisdom, C. (2004). Childhood abuse and neglect and adult intimate relationships: a prospective study. Child Abuse and Neglect, 28(11), 1133-1151.
Felitti, V., Anda, R., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, F., Spitz, A., Edwards, V., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction in many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4).
Fliege, H., Lee, J., Grimm, A., & Klapp, B. F. (2009). Risk factors and correlates of deliberate self-harm behavior: A systematic review. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66(6), 477-493.
MacMillan, H., Boyle, M., Wong, M., Duku, E., Fleming, J., & Walsh, C. (1999). Slapping and spanking in childhood and its association with lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders in a general population sample. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 161(7), 805-809.
McCauley J, Kern DE, Kolodner K, et al. (1997). Clinical characteristics of women with a history of child abuse: unhealed wounds. JAMA, 277(17), 1362-8.
Molnar, B., Shade, S., Kral, A., Booth, R., & Watters, J. (1998). Suicidal Behavior and Sexual / Physical Abuse Among Street Youth. Child Abuse & Neglect. Vol. 22, NO. 3, pp. 213-222.
Mouzos, J., & Makkai, T. (2004). Women’s experiences of male violence. Findings from the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS). Canberra: Australian Institute of Crimonology.
Pears, K., & Capaldi, D. (2001). Intergenerational transmission of abuse: A two-generational prospective study of an at-risk sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 25, 1439-1461.
Straus, M. (1995). Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. New York: Lexington Books.
Straus, M., Sugarman, D., & Giles-Sims, J. (1997), Spanking by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior of children. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151(8), 761-767.
Westat, Inc. 1997. National Evaluation of Runaway and Homeless Youth. Washinton, DC: US Dep’t of HHS, Admin on Children, Youth and Families.