Emotional healing

What does hitting children actually teach them?

Spanking or hitting is a tool that has been used for generations. Even if in some countries it is now illegal, it is still used worldwide with the hope of teaching children ‘a lesson’ of safety, obedience, good manners, self-control and so on.

But what do children feel and really learn when they are hit by their parents/caregivers?

“Hitting a child doesn’t teach them that the road or stove or the outlet isn’t safe. It teaches them that the person hitting them isn’t safe.” – L. R. Knost

When the child is hurt by the person to whom they should run for safety, they get stuck: ‘My parent should keep me safe, yet my parent is hurting me and I’m scared and I have no place to go, what am I to do now?’

At the same time, their ‘thinking brain’ gets disconnected because the limbic area of their brain feels a threat. Their brain goes into survival mode, a state in which no one can learn anything.

At that moment, what a child learns has nothing to do with the lesson one is trying to teach – they might learn that violence is the answer and they will also learn that their safe harbour isn’t there anymore, they are in danger with no safe place to run to. They feel alone and scared – and their eyes will show this.

“Oh, but my child is just one, way too young to remember!” some might say. Yes, at one year of age, kids are too young to remember via explicit memory. That part of the brain is not fully developed until the second birthday. But the implicit memory, where the feelings of being scared or frightened get stored, functions perfectly well, even before birth.

So when the child is being hit or spanked, those feelings of fear, helplessness, and confusion will get stored in the brain. They will get triggered in the future, leading to behaviour through which the child will try to heal that hurt. In those moments, the parent won’t understand where the behaviour is coming from and will consider it as misbehaviour.

‘What should I do instead of hitting/spanking my children?’

‘How will my child learn to listen to me?‘

They will. Because they love you and want to cooperate with you. When they feel safe with you, seen and connected, their ‘thinking’ brain works well and they can learn whatever you have to teach them.

And if they still do something that looks like misbehaviour, instead of ‘This child never learns, I have to teach him a lesson now!’ translate it into ‘My child knows better than this, I know that. I wonder what made them do this…’.

Stop the misbehaviour with warmth and listen to whatever your child has to tell you or the emotional release they have to do.

It won’t be easy, parenting will never be an easy ride, but hitting children will never make things easier either.

On the contrary, it will just cause more pain, more confusion, more disconnection, more hurt, more frustration, more anger, more resentment – and you don’t want to give all these to your child, no one does.

‘Why do I feel like hitting/spanking my child?’

This is a hard question (I’ll try to answer it more fully in future posts, here are just a few ideas), especially if you were hit by your caregivers while growing up, a situation in which painful feelings are triggered. Yet all hope is not lost, far from it!

You can rewrite your story, rewire your brain, heal your triggers, and learn new ways.

Keep in mind that the impulse to hit doesn’t make you a bad parent, it doesn’t reflect your parenting but the hard times you’ve been through.

‘How do I stop hitting/spanking my child?’

If you can, find someone to listen to you while you remember and talk about what it felt like to be a child and be hit by your parent. That will, in time, heal the hurt and you will start to interact with your child from a better place.

If you can’t find such a person, you can use a movie which in some way reminds you of your hurt and allow yourself to cry and then imagine you an adult going back in time, next to the little you, and taking that child’s side, shout ‘I won’t let you hit this kid! He’s a good child and he doesn’t deserve to be hit!’. And then cry some more.

Until you manage to do this work with yourself, whenever you feel like hitting your child, just stop and look into his eyes, really look, and see your baby there. The baby you fell in love with a few years ago, the baby that needs your protection. That baby is now scared and needs your warmth and love.

And breathe. You are safe now, and your child is safe too.

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