Locks Annie SprattThere’s one proverb that makes my blood roil: “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But words can never harm me.” Nothing but nothing could be further from the truth since science knows that the neural pathways for physical and emotional pain are one and the same (yes, your heartache may be more literal than not) and that verbal abuse changes not just the neural connections in the developing brain but affects its very structure. The words hurled at a child might just as well be boulders in fact.

Yet an astonishing number of otherwise reasonably intelligent people discount the power of words to hurt and maim, subscribing to the idea that “they’re only words.” Consider for a moment the amount of publicity (and deaths) it took to convince people that bullying wasn’t just a “normal”—if unpleasant—part of an American childhood that you just had to survive. Little public attention has been paid to the damage done by unloving mothers to their daughters with the cudgel of choice, verbal abuse. Truth? Verbal abuse is emotional abuse..

Verbal abuse in the family is insidious because the child has no way to protect herself against it. She’s trapped because she wants her mother’s love, seeks her approval, and—for a long time and perhaps forever—considers her an authority so she’s likely to believe what is said to and about her. To paraphrase Deborah Tannen, a parent not only creates the world a child lives in but dictates how events in it are to be interpreted.

Verbal abuse largely plays out in secret because it stays within the walls of the home and it leaves no bruises. It’s aided and abetted by the sticks-and-stones kind of thinking which allows the unloving mother to deny that her words hurt. In fact, she’s likely to blame her daughter’s emotional response to her words on the child’s being “too sensitive.” (I heard this again and again during my childhood, as did many of the women with whom I’ve spoken. And, yes, we added “too sensitive” to the pile of faults our mothers assigned to us.) Many mothers have no problem justifying their use of punitive and harsh words too. Marginalizing a child’s achievement—“If you got an A, the test must have been really easy”—can be shrugged off by a mother as an effort to make sure “she doesn’t get a swelled head.” Disparaging a child in highly personal ways—“You’re lazy and no-good” or “Why can’t you be more like your sister”—is often represented as something done for “her own good” or as “discipline” for an “unruly” child or “putting her on the right path.”

It’s not just articulated words alone that are abusive; it’s the deliberate silences, the absence of words, that are aimed at breaking a daughter’s heart and spirit that matter too. Again, these too are “justified” in the scheme of family life. Refusing to answer a daughter’s plea for help or advice, or telling her that she “should know” why she’s being punished or ignored are part of the repertoire as well. A mother’s refusal to look at her daughter or even, as some experts have asserted, isolating her in another room for a time-out can carry great consequence for the daughter’s vision of herself.

A mother’s words can build or destroy a child’s sense of self.

Children internalize the messages about themselves their mothers communicate through words and actions. A child who is well-loved, listened to, and given support internalizes the message that she is worthy, competent, and safe. The child who’s told that she falls short, is a disappointment, or isn’t worth paying attention to internalizes those messages too and they become the interior voice of self-criticism. Self-criticism is a destructive habit of mind in which the person attributes a bad outcome not to external factors but to fixed, generalized traits about the self. You don’t get the promotion you want and your first thought is “I’ll never get promoted because I’m too stupid and not motivated enough” or your relationship founders and you think “Of course, he left me. Why wouldn’t he? He deserves someone better than a loser like me.” Self-criticism plays on a closed loop in the unloved daughter’s head, reminding her that she’s less than and unworthy, and is a direct consequence of verbal abuse.

The hardwired need for mother love and the fear of mother loss go hand in glove. But verbal abuse is emotional abuse—no question.

The first two observations explain why, even in adulthood, many unloved daughters continue to see their mothers, even as they remain sensitive to and hurt by their words. As one daughter wrote me, “ I am utterly deflated every time I see her. The barrage of criticism is constant and unending—from the way I look to how I’m raising my kids. She keeps telling me I’m over-reacting and I keep telling her if she doesn’t stop, I will have to cut bait. It’s a mess.”

It’s high time we start calling the kind of denigrating, withering criticism some mothers lob at their daughters by its rightful name: abuse. This is a secret that needs to be chased out into the open and talked about. NOW.


Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.

Eisenberger, Naomi. “The Pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain” (2012) Nature Reviews Neuroscience (May 2012), 13 (6), 421-434.

Teicher, Martin P., Susan L. Anderson et al. “The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (2003), 27, 33-44.