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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
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Spanking and Our Aggression: A Reflection

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 15th 2010

aggressive people

Tell me whose winning in this picture?

I wrote a recent blog post that explored a new study that came out linking spanking in the early years of life to later aggressive behavior in children. The original image I had chosen was of an angry looking boy with a black eye which for me implied an aggressive child. I had come to see through the eyes of a few readers that for them it implied the child had been spanked in the face, which implies child abuse. Let me be very clear, that was not my intention, however, the dialogue between readers that followed is what was far more interesting.

I've quoted Viktor Frankl here before, but let me do so again as it will set up the point of this post.

"In between stimulus and response there's a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom. "

  • Stimulus - The subject matter of the post, the photo of the boy with the black eye, or an uncomfortable feeling that arose such as anger, sadness, or pain.

  • Space - There was a place before whatever the reaction was that was a "choice point" to respond, however, in states of high emotion, we often aren't aware of this space as we get kicked into a stress reaction of "fight" or "flight" and the auto-pilot takes over.

  • Reaction - This is when we take action on auto-pilot, not really choosing the response, but more non-consciously going with whatever comes up. Similar to when a doctor hits our knees and the knee jerks.

  • Response - This is when we recognize the strong emotion and make a conscious decision with what we are going to do next. There's freedom in not being ruled by our habitual reactions to our unpleasant feelings.

In looking back on the comments (many on the Mental help Facebook fan page), I can see that many reactions were flying around. An initial reaction was in response to the study's findings that it could be possible that early spanking may lead to aggressive behavior. Another reader was triggered by that reaction due to potential past abuse and lashed out at the earlier reader which led to a series of back and forth and even name calling.

The name calling implied to me childhood trauma as that behavior comes from childhood. Just good to inquire where that comes from so we can take someone's aggressive behavior less personally and break that chain reaction of aggression leading to more aggression.

Non-consciously reacting from a place of anger almost never does any good at all. That's just a good thing for us all to know. When other people feel hurt they are also likely to react with aggressive behavior or perhaps turning that aggression inward which leads to depression.

This is not the healthy response we're aspiring too as it leads to dis-ease.

We all react, the point isn't to never react from our emotion, the point is to be able to reflect back on when we did, be authentic with ourselves in where that was coming from and if it did harm, to apologize to the other person knowing that what we were actually reacting to was our own discomfort.

This is a very important point: As adults, we're almost never reacting to the other person, but more often to some uncomfortable feeling that is within us. If anger is within us and we feel it, there's a choice point there. We can choose to react with aggression which will likely lead to more aggression or we can choose to notice the anger, recognize that this discomfort is here, inquire a bit deeper into maybe where it is coming from. Is it completely from this situation or are there things from our past that are playing into the intensity of this emotion? Is the other person in pain too and may be reacting from his or her own history? From this place at times we can respond from a more compassionate place for ourselves and the other person.

This does not mean taking action to challenge what does not seem right; (see constructive anger) it's more about how we challenge it that makes all the difference for ourselves and others.   

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a deep wisdom for us to learn, grow and change.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

On spanking and its effects/success in discipline - Sandra - Sep 24th 2010

I did not see the original image you spoke about that had many up in arms over the idea that spanking=child abuse, however, I do have my own take on spanking as a form of teaching/disciplining children.  My reasoning comes from personal experience and the messages I believe are given children who are hit by parents/caregivers.


While I realize spanking is very common, and I had more than a handful of spankings as a child, it is worth mentioning I don't remember anything about what I was supposed to learn.  I do not remember what I did to get the spankings, so I learned very little about proper behavior.  I did learn about fear, and the anticipation of being spanked would consume my thoughts right up to the time it finally occurred.  It taught me fear, but that's about it.

Meanwhile, I was taught never to hit others and to respect adults.  I never raised my hand once when hit by my mom, even though there were times she had me in a corner slapping and hitting me (I was a teenager) and calling me names.  NEVER did I hit back.

It is a hypocricy to tell children the appropriate way to behave, and then go and do exactly the opposite to them.  And, it does not teach lessons, at least not ones I want to instill in my child.  It teaches anxiety and fear, and doing whatever it takes to avoid being hit.

I recently read about a horrible homicide that occurred when a father wanted his 8 year old son to sleep, and when he wasn't really sleeping (he could see his eyes moving under his eyelids), he punched him in the chest.  After hours of abuse, he finally did go to sleep.  He died.  The woman who was the fathers girlfriend witnessed the abuse, but did nothing but say he wasn't doing it right!  Her child, a female who was a few years older than the boy was the only one who gave a true account of what occurred to the poor boy.  Both the father, and his girlfriend did not consider behavior as inappropriate.  The father was trying to teach the boy some discipline!  Certainly an extreme example, however, it is worth mentioning.





Not yet - - Apr 22nd 2010

Not yet they're not.

What? - Cathy - Apr 16th 2010

No disrespect but I really don't understand all the mumbo, jumbo about reacting stuff but too often, it is just a fact and not related to any reaction to something from my childhood, spanking is considered beating which it is not and when I saw the photo of the child, well, the subtle meaning seemed to come through loud and clear - people who spank their children are abusive, child beaters.  Neither myself or my children are in therapy, jail or on medications so I'll continue to defend spanking as a form of discipline which I believe leads one to self-discipline versus the aggression (related to food addictives, poor diet, genetics, drugs - both illegal and legal and the lose of God).

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