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This edition of Ask Amanda was written by Lisa Fontes, a domestic violence expert with a Ph.D. in psychology.
Q: My husband is pushing me to hit our children. My parents spanked me growing up, but now I really don’t believe in hitting children. We already have a lot of conflict in our home. I don’t want them to be scared. If I don’t spank them, he will. What should I do? – Pressured to Hit Children
The research on corporal punishment is clear now: hitting children hurts them. Children who are spanked are more likely to be aggressive—they are learning that it is okay to hit others. Corporal punishment also harms the parent-child relationship, and harms children’s mental health. Adults who have been physically punished as children are more likely to abuse their own child or spouse, continuing the intergenerational cycle of violence. Corporal punishment frightens children, and the hormones released by their fright harms their bodies, with long-lasting consequences, including higher blood pressure, and a greater likelihood of stroke, diabetes and heart problems. While threatening and hitting children might make them obey in the moment, it is in their interest for you and your husband to stop hitting them. You need to find other ways to set clear and loving limits, without physical force.
As someone who works with families all the time, I can tell you children who are spanked are less likely to confide in their parents when they need to make tough decisions as teens, about sex, alcohol or shoplifting, for instance. One study found that seventy-five percent of incidents of physical abuse began as corporal punishment. It is just too easy for parents to hurt a child unintentionally when spanking, if the child falls, for instance, for the parent hits harder than intended.
Children in a home with a lot of conflict or domestic violence suffer even more than others when they are hit. Children’s brains can only hold so much exposure to trauma. Fearing one parent or both is just too much, on top of everything else they have endured. (This is why across the United States, foster parents are not allowed to spank foster children—those kids have already been traumatized).
Which brings us to your dilemma. You only want what’s best for your children, and so you have decided to stop hitting them. This is the right decision. Your husband is pressuring you to hit them and you know it is wrong. If he keeps pushing you, maybe by threatening that if you do not spank them, he will hit them harder, then this is a form of emotional abuse.
You are at a crucial and difficult crossroads. Will you protect your children, even if it means ending your marriage? Many people who have endured abuse for years themselves take steps toward leaving to protect their children. Others stay, and may find themselves facing legal charges for failure to protect their children. Even worse, some stay, and either lose custody of their children, or watch their children suffer for years. Some children grow up to blame the parent who did not protect them even more than they blame the abusive parent.
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If you think there is any possibility that your husband will change his spanking ways, you can certainly try. Do you know a member of the clergy, a teacher, a pediatrician or a family member who is opposed to spanking who can speak with him? But if he is committed to spanking your children, which is a form of abuse, then you need to take action in their defense, while avoiding putting yourself at risk.
Speak with an advocate at your local domestic violence agency. Develop a safety plan for you and your children. A safe home is a home with a “no hitting” rule. And that means no one hits anyone at all—adults don’t hit adults, adults don’t hit children, and children don’t hit each other, either. A peaceful, loving home cannot include hitting.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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