Spanking and the 'Alarm Reaction'
By Adah Maurer, Ph.D.
Excerpt from Dr. Maurer's book, Paddles Away: A Psychological Study of Physical Punishment in Schools, Palo Alto, California: R.& E. Research Associates, 1981.

When the human or animal is under stress from cold, worry, disease, infection, overwork, intense excitement, pain or other strain, the body reacts in predictable ways. It may do special things to combat specific injuries but always an additional three things happen: The adrenal cortex increases in size, sending more hormones into the blood; the thymus and lymph glands shrink; and the lining of the stomach becomes red and irritated, in extreme cases bloody or ulcerous. This, Dr. Selye calls the alarm reaction. It calls into play the main regulators of the stress syndrome: the brain, nerves, pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, liver, kidney, blood vessels, connective tissue cells and white blood cells. The body is mobilized to maintain itself and to fend off, destroy or otherwise neutralize the intruding stressor. Thus when three-year-old Jeffrey Klein was paddled at nursery school for the serious sin of taking another child's lollipop, the imprint of the paddle remained on his buttocks that evening. When he cried and vomited at the dinner table, his mother tried to help him, but he push away and, grabbing his bottom, ran blindly into the wall. Alarmed, she called her husband. Between them, they gently eased Jeffrey into a warm tub and examined his bruises....

"I only intended to cause a sting," said the principal. "I used only a wrist action, not my arm. After the first swat he stomped his feet and cried the cry of a spoiled brat. After the third swat he quieted down and turned it off."

Jeffrey was three-years-old. The "sting" that reddened his buttocks, left raised welts and burst blood vessels had caused subcutaneous hematoma. But it had obviously done more than that. The stress had set off the alarm reaction and spun the baby into the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome which Selye defines as the "bodily expression of the generalized call to arms of the defensive forces of the organism." Adrenaline poured into his blood stream giving rise to expressions of fear (crying) and anger (stomping his foot). Resistance of the whole body was coordinated; the thymus (growth gland) shrank, white blood cells doubled and gastric acid poured from the lining into his stomach. These somatic reactions, however, were not competent to deal with the wicked paddle which appeared life threatening to the child. The next reaction after two more blows was quite different. The punisher thought he had finally pounded some sense into the recalcitrant little imp and that of his own free will he had decided to obey the command to be still, but Selye's stress syndrome hypothesizes a quite different series of events.

There are three stages of adaptation to stress; alarm, resistance and exhaustion. In the first, chemical alarm signals are sent by the painful part to the centers of coordination in the nervous system and to the endocrine glands, especially the pituitary and the adrenals which produce adaptive hormones to combat wear and tear on the body. But no living organism an be maintained continually in a state of alarm. If the damage is so extensive as to be incompatible with life, then death ensues during the alarm reaction within the first few hours. If survival is possible at all, the second stage, that of resistance, follows. The body adapts to the stress and appears to be in a state of equilibrium. This adaptation is tenuous however; under continued stress this acquired adaptation is easily lost. Fresh stress may send the organism into the third stage, exhaustion. "At the end of a life under stress there is a kind of premature aging due to wear and tear."

The Selye experiments with laboratory rats using cold as the stressor showed that they could adapt to near freezing temperatures after an original alarm reaction, but that additional stress was poorly born and after several months they lost their ability to withstand cold even in moderate amounts. Similar experiments using other stressors such as intense prolonged exercise or toxic drugs gave the same results. After a certain amount of stress came an adaptation to it and an apparent ability to withstand it without harm. This made it more difficult to adapt to a still greater level of stress and eventually they dropped into a third stage with total exhaustion and inability to cope.

Unlike battered children who reached stage three and either die or live on for short brain damaged lives, Jeffrey was rescued after he reached the second stage; his parents withdrew him from the school. During the second stage, a sort of numbed shock, he seemed to have adapted to the requirements of a stressful situation until he attempted to eat his supper. His mother did not say whether she had threatened to spank him if he did not eat his supper nicely and thus we cannot be sure just what in the immediate situation reactivated the alarm. In any case, the normal supper situation with whatever minor stresses it usually entailed could not be handled by a child already in stage two. Fortunately loving parents became aware that something was seriously wrong; their expressions of sympathy and determination to safeguard the child, along with the warm bath eased him way back to - or very close to - his normal self.

Some boys, usually older than Jeffrey, are said to be so used to spankings that they don't understand anything else. The battering has not been severe enough to injure them conspicuously, but it has been prolonged enough to keep them in the second stage of adaptation to the stress. This too helps to explain the contradiction of juvenile delinquents who appear "tough" on the surface, yet fall apart easily. The slightest criticism is heard as deadly insult; the explosive impulsivity, the lack of self control are not character traits so much as they are adaptations to excessive stress. The return to baseline for Jeffrey was possible; return for others to what society might consider acceptable behavior may very well be impossible after having reached a point of no return. Selye concluded that each human is endowed at birth with a finite amount of adaptation energy which may be spent conservatively over a long lifetime or expended rapidly in high excitement and early death...

Front Page