In Conversation with Robbyn Peters Bennett

Robbyn

Robbyn

I’m thrilled to present to CAPC readers my interview with Robbyn Peters Bennett, MA, LMHC.  Robbyn is the founder of Stop Spanking.org and a board advisor for the US Alliance to End the Hitting of Children .   She is a psychotherapist, administrator, educator and child advocate.  She provides therapy to families involved with Child Protective Services, and provides parenting assessments for the Department of Child & Family Services.  Currently she has a private practice in Bellingham, Washington

Kim:  Robbyn, thank you so much for sharing your time with CAPC readers!  Can you tell us a little about your organization, StopSpanking.org:  why did you start it and what are you hoping to accomplish with your work?

Robbyn:  I founded StopSpanking as a nonprofit dedicated to educating parents and clinicians who work with parents on the current neurobiological discoveries that make it clear that we should never spank our children – ever.  There are human rights arguments and religious arguments that support the idea that we should never spank.  But as a clinician working in the field of childhood abuse and neglect, I was aware that there is an avalanche of research warning against spanking, but this research was not showing up in clinical training for pediatricians, therapists, nurses, and social workers that work with children.  So as a professional community, many of us are not up to speed on the research.  So, we are failing to educate the public.  We are also lacking any meaningful campaign to educate the public.

StopSpanking is an online resource that can help clinicians feel more comfortable educating their patients and clients and it is a website available to parents so that they can better understand the research.  There is no spanking debate in the professional community.  The research is as compelling statistically as the research on smoking with 93% agreement.  The controversy is in the general public, so our mission is to help educate the public on what is already known scientifically.

We also understand that spanking is on a continuum of violence against children, and that it is a gateway to criminal child abuse. Our goal is to prevent criminal child abuse by changing social acceptance of spanking – essentially making spanking socially unacceptable just as domestic violence between adults is socially unacceptable

Kim:  Our ministry aims to provide information to Catholic parents who are interested in attachment-based parenting.  How does spanking impact the quality of attachment of a child to her parent? 

Robbyn:  Neuroscience teaches us that the first core strength of healthy brain development is attachment.  Attachment is the ability to form a one-to-one relationship with a loving caregiver.  This ability is the foundation to all further brain development. Healthy attachment allows for co-regulation between the caregiver and the child, which builds a child’s capacity for self-regulation.  Self-regulation allows a child to manage emotion, control her impulses, recover from distress, and maintain attention and focus.

92861969Self-regulation is necessary in order to develop other skills such as social affiliation, tolerance, and empathy.  So if we want our children to be pro-social, to be able to share, form and maintain friendships, express empathy for others, problem solve and negotiate, manage their feelings, focus on learning and maintain attention – we must help them develop self regulation through their attachment to us.

When we use fear and pain to educate our children, it compromises their bond to us, because it creates confusion between love and pain.  It teaches a child that sometimes the primary person whom she relies on for love, safety, and warmth is the very same person that can hurt you.  The child can form an ambivalent attachment which interferes with the development of the child’s self regulation skills.

When the caregiver is the source of threat, the child cannot use the parent as a source of co-regulation. We know that children can tolerate a great deal of stress without experiencing a toxic stress reaction in the brain if they have a warm, safe, secure relationship with their primary caregiver.   Spanking is by definition a threat in the absence of the buffering support of the caregiver, which increases the risk for a toxic stress reaction in the brain.  Toxic stress inhibits proper brain development and leads to negative outcomes such as increased aggressive and poor impulse control.

Spanking can inhibit learning in several ways.  Spanking

  • teaches the child to fear and avoid the parent, so the parent is less available to the child to solve problems and cope with the world;
  • activates the fight or flight response (stress response) and shuts down the neo-cortex responsible for cognitive processing.  So the child has more difficulty understanding and learning from mistakes;
  • interferes with the development of self regulation, making it more difficult for the child to control impulses, manage frustration, and cope with feelings.

Many people believe that if a mother spanks her child, but is generally warm and affectionate toward her child, the spanking will not be harmful.  The fact is, science does not support this cultural belief.  We have known for some time that spanking is strongly linked to increased aggression in young children.  Recent research in a study of over 3,000 children now shows that the warmth of the mother does not prevent the negative effects of spanking.  This means children who are spanked are at much greater risk for being more aggressive – period.  A mother’s warmth does not decrease the risk.   Here is a link providing further details of this research:  Maternal Warmth Doesn’t Make Spanking Less Harmful  

This may come as a big surprise to many parents, but when you begin to understand the importance of the buffering influence of a caregiver on the child’s ability to regulate, this really starts to make sense.

Kim:  Some parents argue that we should all just do what works best for our families and not judge one another.  What would you say to those parents?

Robbyn:  When we say it is OK if other parents spank, we are essentially giving permission to parents who are more overwhelmed, victims of early abuse themselves, in unsupportive relationships, with fewer resources and greater stress to strike their children.  And they do strike their children.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which is one of the largest longitudinal studies performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Health Plan of over 17,000 middle class Americans, showed that 29% of Americans reported childhood physical abuse.  That is over 88 million people. We know that the majority of physical abuse begins with a parent attempting to physically punish a child.  Physical assault of children is an enormous problem in this country and has huge long-term consequences including increase risk for depression, mental health problems, cardiac disease, asthma, obesity, lung disease, and the list goes on.  This is what the Adverse Childhood Experience Study has taught us, that early abuse and neglect lead to major health problems into adulthood, because these early negative experiences alter brain development.  Research shows that spanking has many of the same negative outcomes and that children who are harshly spanked have alterations in brain development similar to individuals who were victims of overt child abuse.

We need to take responsibility for our own children by committing not to spank, and we need to stand up for all children and say that spanking is wrong and it is never OK to hit a child.  The negative risks are too great to have confusion about hitting children.  There is no fine line.  All hitting falls on the continuum of violence, and science cannot offer a cutoff between spanking that is harmless and spanking that is risky.  Spanking is very stressful for the child, and depending upon the frequency and developmental stage of the child, there are going to be consequences.

Kim: What about parents who spank in a way that does not qualify as child abuse as our laws currently stand.  I believe in most states spanking is permitted as long as it doesn’t leave visible marks on the child.  Is there any evidence or research which distinguishes the outcomes for children who are clearly abused and for children who are loved warmly and only occasionally spanked “lightly”?

Robbyn:  Spanking is permitted in every state in the US with varying definitions of “reasonable force.”  The research on spanking only includes legal spanking, as opposed to overt child abuse.  Researchers are also careful to rule out things such as domestic violence in the home or maternal depression or mental illness in order to isolate the phenomena of spanking.  Some studies look at both spanking and yelling, while others specifically spanking.  Some look at spanking that includes the use of implements such as belts or spoons, which is common to 30% of American children, others only spanking with the hand.

Many of the recent studies look specifically at spanking (defined as a smack with the open hand on the bottom) with young children from infancy to age 5.  These studies show an increase in aggression and behavioral problems over time.

Each study naturally has shortcomings, so it is important to look at the cumulative outcomes.  The cumulative research on spanking has as much statistical validity as the research showing negative outcomes of smoking. It is a powerful warning.

When we imagine we are spanking “lightly,” we may lose sight of the fact that from the child’s perspective spanking is painful and frightening.  If spankings were not painful, what exactly would be the point?  Spanking teaches the child that sometimes her primary caregiver can be a threat, and so the child may have anxiety about being hurt in the future.  The threat of a spanking is also damaging.

When we use euphemisms like “spanking,” we psychologically distance ourselves from the fact that we are hitting.  When we eliminate confusing euphemisms and state the question as, “Is it dangerous to lightly and infrequently hit my child?” or “According to the research, how often can I hit my child without negative outcomes?” the question seems absurd.

The research shows that the more frequent the spanking, the greater risk for negative outcomes.  It also shows that spanking with an open hand can be toxic, resulting in increased aggression, lower IQ, increased behavioral problems, and a myriad of health problems.  Is there a cutoff between spanking that is OK and spanking that is dangerous?  There is not a clear cutoff.  The developing brain of a child is extremely vulnerable and there are developmental windows of extreme sensitivity, particularly when between the ages of 0 – 5.  It is like asking how many cigarettes one can safely smoke.  Depending on the frequency and sensitive developmental windows, even infrequent spanking could be quite harmful.  Why risk it?

Kim:  Many parents sense spanking is not the best option, but they just don’t know what else to do.  Do you have any practical suggestions or resources for parents who wish to stop spanking or who are dealing with a spirited child?

Robbyn:  Yes!  There are so many wonderful resources.  We have a resource page on our site.  There are online Facebook sites and websites that are dedicated to the concepts of Positive Discipline and Unconditional Parenting.  There is a wonderful interactive tool created by the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt that helps you learn how to deal with aggressive children.  And there are many, many books dedicated to this subject.  Parents can feel secure in knowing that many parents are raising children without spanking, and doing so successfully.  I always encourage parents to join local online parenting groups for practical advice, and of course you can always seek professional help if your child is having difficulty with aggressive behaviors.

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Robbyn welcomes readers to contact her with feedback or questions.  Visit her on Facebook:  www.facebook.com/protectchildrenfromviolence.

RESOURCES

On-Line:

StopSpanking.org (see especially the extensive resource page Robbyn mentions!)

Books:

Spare the Child by Philip J. Greven

Beating the Devil Out of Them by Murray A. Strauss

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen (what to do instead of spanking)

Parenting with Grace by Greg & Lisa Popcak (copious tips on gentle discipline)

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