Corporal Punishment and Trauma
Beyond physical pain or injury, hitting children can cause long-lasting anxiety, social withdrawal and severe depression
It was spring when Joshua Watson, a sixth-grader at Alvarado Intermediate School in Alvarado, Texas, had an unsettling decision to make -- whether to accept a five-day in-school suspension or be struck three times with a paddle. His offense: earning his 10th demerit point for forgetting to bring pencils to class. Joshua was getting good grades and didn't want to fall behind. So, with the consent of his parents, he decided to be paddled.
The day of the paddling, the vice principal approached him outside the cafeteria and told him to remove the two extra pairs of pants he was wearing before coming to see him that afternoon. Joshua complied and reported to the office to wait his turn. "I was really scared and really nervous," he recalls. "It was the longest 10 or 15 minutes I've ever had."
Finally, the vice principal called him into his office and directed Joshua to bend over a chair. Then he lifted the wooden paddle over his head and slammed it into the boy's buttocks. Joshua screamed and begged him to stop. "I said, 'Please, please don't hit me again. Give me two weeks of in-school suspension instead.'" But he was told it was too late to change: If Joshua didn't bend over again, he'd add another smack to the punishment. Two more times he struck the boy, as Joshua cried and pleaded for mercy.
When Joshua returned to class, his bottom was too sore to sit on. At home, he showed his mother the results and she was shocked. "[The bruise] was purple and black and red," she recalls. "It covered all of his buttocks." She called Child Protective Services and took Josh to the emergency room, where the attending doctor had an important question: "Who has been beating this child?"
For the next 10 days, Joshua couldn't lie on his back or his side because it hurt too much. After two weeks, he could ride his bike only by taping a cushion to the seat. The Watsons took daily photographs of their son's buttocks and say that even a month later, they could still see signs of bruising. But the emotional trauma lasted far longer.
Beginning the first night after his paddling, Joshua began having nightmares in which he would see the vice principal chasing him with a huge paddle or a gun. According to his mother, Paula, these nightmares continued for more than a year. "For eight months he didn't sleep through the night," she recalls. "He didn't even sleep in his bed; he slept in ours. In the worst part of the nightmare, he was wetting his bed because of the fear and the terror. He regressed emotionally to the age of two or three."
Joshua was too frightened to return to school that spring, so his mother quit her job so she could home-school him and take him to appointments with a therapist and psychiatrist. The experts diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and placed the 11-year-old on antidepressants and medication for anxiety.
Sadly, more than ten years after Joshua's school paddling, such experiences are not all that unusual. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 220,000 children are spanked or beaten at public schools each year. That's a steep decline from the 1.4 million children who were physically punished in 1979-80, but the National Parent Teachers Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse say the practice should be abolished entirely. Like Joshua Watson, many kids who are physically punished have recurring nightmares or night terrors and suffer flashbacks, bed-wetting, anxiety, school phobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some withdraw socially and become underachieving loners.
Trouble on the home front
While the use of corporal punishment is dropping in the schools, most parents in the United States still use physical punishment to discipline their children. This practice is still widely accepted despite a growing consensus among psychologists and professional organizations that such punishment is both ineffective and potentially traumatizing.
Robert Fathman, a psychologist in Dublin, Ohio, has been campaigning against corporal punishment ever since his daughter was paddled in the first grade in 1980. He says that hitting children to discipline them, whether at home or in the schools, can have serious long-term effects. Some children become aggressive, even violent, and studies have linked harsh physical discipline to increased incidence of criminal and violent behavior among children. Psychologist and researcher Ralph Welsh, who has done extensive research in this area, calls this connection the "belt theory of juvenile delinquency." In dealing with thousands of young criminals over the years, he says, he has never run across a violent offender who was not beaten or abused by his or her parents or guardians.
But Fathman says many children also turn their anger inward and become depressed. "When someone hits us with a board, especially as a child, it make us very angry," he says. "If it's a kid with a stick, we can try to beat them up, or we can tell parents or friends and get lots of support. But if it's a teacher or principal or parent, who are we going to tell? We can't go to the person in authority, because that's the person who is hitting us. Especially if it's a parent, because they're the person who's supposed to nurture and comfort us no matter what. Hence we stifle the anger. And when anger is repressed and internalized, that causes depression."
Kathy Darbyshire, 42, of Columbus, Ohio, says she was hit nearly every day of her childhood by her parents -- especially her father, who would slap her with the back of his hand when he was angry. She would creep around the house trying not to make noise or draw attention to herself. She had constant nightmares and became so anxious she could barely sleep; instead, she would lie awake most of the night. At school, she had few friends until high school and would daydream through her classes. Sometimes, she says, "I would pull my hair over my face so I didn't have to look at my teachers, so I could just be by myself."
Her first suicide attempt came at age 7, when she tried to stab herself with a butcher knife. She made several more attempts in the coming years. "I was afraid all the time," she remembers. "I was lonely and I was very angry. I had no self-esteem. I thought I was nothing. I still don't think much of myself."
Life as an adult has not been easy, either. She married an emotionally abusive man and has been in and out of mental health treatment for more than 20 years, diagnosed with depression. Therapy has helped, she says, but she still lives with a deeply-ingrained sense of fear. "Even today, if you reach toward me too fast, I will cringe and jerk back," she says.
There are many people like Darbyshire who attribute their bouts of depression to the physical punishment they received at the hands of their parents. But such anecdotes do not constitute scientific proof. Murray Straus, a professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, decided to seek such evidence. He put together a study in which 6,000 adults were interviewed about how often they were hit by their parents at age 13, and how often they experience symptoms of depression such as feeling hopeless or feeling very sad. He found that the more times people were struck as young teenagers, the more likely they were to be depressed and to think about committing suicide.
"Those men who were hit the most as teenagers had a 23 percent higher depression score than those who were never hit," Straus says. For women, the difference was 18 percent.
Another study, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found that corporal punishment by parents was the strongest of 11 different factors contributing to depression among teenagers living in or around public housing. While corporal punishment has declined greatly in the public schools, it is still widespread within American families. A 2010 study crunching 2002 numbers found that nearly 90 percent of U.S. parents admitted spanking their preschoolers occasionally, and 50 percent of them had hit children who are eight or nine with an object such as a belt or switch.
Although many parents view beatings as terrible and spankings as essentially harmless, Straus and other psychologists believe that spanking is dangerous in its own right. Not only does it teach kids that "might makes right," but it causes fear, anger, pain, and resentment that can harm a child's self-image. He argues that because corporal punishment is so pervasive in this country, it is one of the biggest contributors to depression. "We could probably do more to prevent adult depression by ending the use of spanking than any other single preventative step we could take," Straus says.
The Watson family dealt with the fallout from Joshua's traumatic paddling, but it was hard on the entire family. In the fall following the paddling, Joshua tried to return to school but became so anxious that he experienced fainting spells, and his nightmares and bed-wetting intensified. Then, as the one-year anniversary of the paddling drew near, things took a frightening turn. "He would faint and fall down, be out for 30 to 45 seconds," Paula Watson recalls. "Then he would come to with a jerk and go right into a flashback of the assault. He would scream, drag himself along the floor to try to get away. And he would not recognize me."
One flashback was so intense that his mother tried to drive him to the hospital -- but she had to stop and get an ambulance because Joshua was trying to get out of the car, screaming, the vice principal "is going to kill me, he's got a gun." He was hospitalized for four days and then went to the hospital day treatment center for the next three weeks. The family moved into a new school district, and Joshua improved with the help of a good therapist and caring teachers. But his progress has come at a steep cost: The Watsons' former home was foreclosed on when they couldn't sell it. Their medical expenses came to about $100,000.
And Joshua's experience with school paddling changed his parents' views of corporal punishment forever. "We've taken a 180-degree turn in our views about it," says Joshua's father, David. "I don't want to put [a] kid in that situation ever again."
The Center for Effective Discipline. http://www.stophitting.com
Interview with Joshua Watson, school paddling victim, Alvarado, Texas
Interview with David and Paula Watson, Alvarado, Texas
Interview with Kathy Darbyshire, Columbus, Ohio
Interview with Bob Fathman, psychologist and children's mental health advocate
Interview with Murray Straus, sociology professor, University of New Hampshire
Child Abuse Review, August 9, 2010
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