Effects of Punishment on Children's Brains

What are the effects of punishment on children's brains? What about their psychological and cognitive development? Today, we'll tell you what science says about this.
Effects of Punishment on Children's Brains

Last update: 24 March, 2021

What are the effects of punishment on children’s brains? Besides affecting their brains, punishment during childhood – especially physical punishment – may cause serious effects on children’s psychological and cognitive development. 

In this sense, experts claim that physical punishment may damage children’s self-esteem, and it may also affect their confidence. Furthermore, this strategy can limit children’s autonomy. As a result, they may end up being submissive or rebellious.

According to an article from the magazine Pediatrics, physical punishment may lead to certain psycho-pathologies, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and other personality or behavior disorders. In addition, punishment can affect their cognitive development. Let’s see how this can happen.

Effects of punishment on children’s brains

Have you ever wondered how punishment affects children’s brains? According to psychologist Rafael Guerrero, when we punish children by not letting them eat dessert or even expelling them from school, something odd happens in their brains.

Effects of Punishment on Children's Brains

Actually, the lower levels of the brain, which are in charge of survival instincts, activate. So, what happens when we punish them? As a response, children have three options: attacking, running away or becoming paralyzed. These responses are instinctive and unconscious.

The parts of the brain that control instinctive and emotional behaviors is activated

Regarding neurochemicals, the brain releases a great amount of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormone). As a consequence, children find it hard to think clearly. Therefore, in many cases, they tend to “seek revenge” unconsciously.

Besides, the activation of the lower levels of the brain – those related to instinct and emotions – make it hard for children to act rationally. The higher levels of the brain are the ones related to reasoning and critical thinking.

Learning difficulties

As we’ve mentioned before, children will tend to act instinctively and emotionally, and they’ll find it hard to identify their mistakes. In other words, their brain won’t be prepared to acquire knowledge. Therefore, it’ll be really hard for them to learn new things.

Since punishment is a punitive strategy, children don’t learn to do things better; it’s not effective. For example, a common strategy to teach children to behave properly is overcorrection.

The effects of punishment in children’s cognitive development

Different studies have suggested that punishment can affect children’s cognitive development. Following this idea, the University of New Hampshire in the US carried out a study with 806 children from 2-4 years old, and 704 children from 5-9 years old. Researchers made both groups take different cognitive tests, and they repeated them 4 years later.

Influence on their IQ

What did they find in the results of the tests? During those 4 years, children who didn’t receive physical punishment (from the first group) had an IQ of 5 points higher than those who received punishment. 

Regarding the second group, results were quite similar. Children who didn’t receive physical punishment had an IQ of 2.8 points higher than those who received punishment. This study also discovered that IQ is also related to the frequency in which punishment was given.

In fact, the more physical punishment children received, the higher were the negative effects on children’s cognitive development. Actually, researchers found out that even mild physical punishment can affect children’s IQ when being frequent.

Effects of Punishment on Children's Brains

“Educate the children and it won’t be necessary to punish the men.”

– Pythagoras –

Is punishment useful?

As we’ve seen, there are clear effects of punishment on children. Whenever we punish children, their emotional and instinctive parts of the brain activate. As a result, they prepare to attack or run away. Plus, this prevents them from thinking rationally.

Furthermore, punishment may also affect children’s self-esteem. Remember that this isn’t an effective educational strategy. In fact, there are many effective and respectful learning strategies to learn from, which are based on understanding, respect and love.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Gershof, E.T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: a meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychol Bull, 128: 539-79.
  • Sauceda, J.M. et al. (2007). El castigo físico en la crianza de los hijos. Un estudio comparativo. Bol Med Hosp Infant Mex: 382-388.
  • Sege, R. D., Siegel, B. S., ABUSE, C. O. C., & Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2018). Effective discipline to raise healthy children. Pediatrics142(6). https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/6/e20183112
  • Straus, M. A. (1994). Beating the devil out of them. Transaction Publishers. https://books.google.es/books?hl=es&lr=&id=RbpT9Ln5WZMC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Beating+the+devil+out+of+them:+Corporal+punishment+in+American+families&ots=ryK5uoNWgE&sig=mdnNXGsIck3xYTupJTIFZwogEdo

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.