Physical abuse is defined as any voluntary action that causes or may cause injury. The report Strategy for the eradication of violence against children and adolescents, from the Ministry of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda, states that, in 2021, there were 21,521 notifications about child victims of violence. In relation to physical abuse, 2,940 girls suffered it compared to 2,717 boys (data from the Unified Registry of Child Abuse system). The document highlights that the age at which most cases are detected is between 11 and 14 years, with the detection of violence perpetrated in children from zero to six years being especially complex. Information that makes clear how difficult it is to discover the physical violence exercised during childhood and adolescence.
In order to establish global protection measures against abuse and violence against children and adolescents, Organic Law 8/2021 was approved in April 2021. Its objective is to guarantee the fundamental rights of children and adolescents and their physical, mental, psychological and moral integrity against any form of violence, ensuring the free development of their personality and establishing comprehensive protection measures.
To delve into the relationship between physical abuse and mental health, a team of psychologists, psychiatrists and biomedical doctors from different American universities has carried out research that has seen the light of day in the journal Biological Psychiatry. his name is Corporal Punishment Is Uniquely Associated With a Greater Neural Response to Errors and Blunted Neural Response to Rewards in Adolescence. The main conclusion they have reached with the study of 149 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 14 is that those who experience corporal punishment report more symptoms of anxiety and depression as adults. This study is part of a global line of research that analyzes the influence of stress on anxiety, depression and suicide and on a new piece of information: complex trauma. “This occurs in the person who relives the situation of discomfort with emotional intensity and negative subjective sensation, above all, chronic and sustained,” says Pedro Javier Rodríguez Hernández, a child psychiatrist from the Spanish Association of Pediatrics. “This situation, in a developing plastic brain such as that of a child, can cause more anxiety and depression as an adult,” he adds.
Rosana Pereira Dávila, a child and youth psychologist from the Haztúa Positive Psychology cabinet, maintains that physical punishment, which is also physical abuse, is any way of causing pain or discomfort as a means to correct behavior or impose discipline: “Regardless of the means with which whoever causes the pain (blows, lashes, belts…), the emotional impact of the punishment is very high”. Pereira assures that the debate about whether “a lash in time” solves a bad behavior or corrects a conduct is false: “In addition, in Spain, hitting is punishable by law. Educating by hitting is not educating, it is terrifying”.
The symptoms appear shortly after the abuse takes place, “because the positive bond is broken, since healthy attachment does not occur. Anxiety appears in childhood, continues into adolescence, increased by the elements of confrontation that appear at this time between children and parents, and remains as a character trait in adulthood,” says José Luis Pedreira, a professor Retired psychopathology, criminology degree, UNED.
The environment in which physical abuse occurs will determine the consequences on the boy or girl and on their future personal development, being that produced in the family environment the one that has the most profound impact, because who causes the damage is the person in question. the most trusted. “When the person who has to take care of you is the one who hits you, feelings of fear and lack of trust in the outside world are generated. The fear learned in the family environment causes rejection and isolation from the outside”, explains Pereira. As for the physical punishment that occurs in the school environment, as she explains, it can seriously impair learning and cognitive development, essential bases of life in society.
“Physical abuse is not easy to discover, but it’s not difficult either, you just have to pay attention first to what the child says, and also to their responses to the mechanisms of educational reduction or repression,” says Pereira. The maturational stage in which the child is found is an important factor when it comes to being able to decipher if this physical abuse is taking place. For example, according to the expert, in childhood they can show fear, be withdrawn, become defensive or have cognitive difficulties: “In late childhood, at nine or ten years of age, the child withdraws easily and has certain difficulties in defensive reaction; it could be said that he allows himself to be hit, because he is frightened in the face of that situation ”. Pereira adds that, in adolescence, he can go from being a withdrawn and shy young man to reacting with a higher level of aggressiveness than might be expected.
Physical punishment should never be an option in education. “For a developing mind, it can cause serious consequences that will affect the person for the rest of their lives, and that will make them need professional help,” explains the psychiatrist. “Aside from mental disorders,” he continues, “there is a high risk of peer relationship difficulties, aggressive behavior and behaviour, inability to regulate emotions and, of course, serious self-esteem problems.”
In addition, as Rodríguez sometimes affirms, those adults who suffered physical abuse during their childhood or adolescence reproduce this type of behavior, because the behavioral patterns that are learned in childhood are reproduced in adulthood: “Although how it has been the evolution or personality of the individual, since there are personalities that are more prone to repeat behaviors learned in childhood”.
Early detection and intervention are essential to reduce the probability of a psychological or psychiatric disorder appearing and to ensure that the child who has suffered this type of abuse reaches as normal an adulthood as possible. For this reason, to eradicate physical punishment, the information and education of parents is necessary: “Also provide parents with ways to channel stress. The greater the stress in the family environment, the greater the probability of using corporal punishment”. For Rodríguez, it is also necessary to offer children emotional support, encourage communication in order to listen to their complaints, give them a safe environment and models based on negotiation and dialogue for conflict resolution.
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