I find it astonishing, especially as someone trained in literature and focused on the power of the words, that the culture remains convinced—despite a robust body of scientific research—that abuse must be physical. It’s not just the “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But words will never harm me” thing but the general skepticism that words can be damaging. Consider that it took a rash of highly publicized tween and teen suicides for the culture to recognize that the bully in the schoolyard or in cyberspace wasn’t a staple of childhood and adolescent experiences.
When people do concede that words can hurt and even maim, they imagine screaming and yelling, perhaps laced with profanities and a string of searing put-downs. In fact, silence can be just as damaging, especially if it is directed at a child by a parent. Children who are verbally abused in relatively quiet ways—absent the screaming and yelling—are actually more likely to normalize their experiences. They’re much more prone not to recognize that a parent is actually abusing them which presents a number of specific kinds of danger and long-term effects.
First, they often don’t have the emotional maturity to self-defend consciously; instead, they internalize the negative messages communicated as self-criticism. Self-criticism is the unconscious habit of ascribing failures and setbacks in life to fixed character flaws in the self. The interior dialogue goes something like this: “I didn’t make the team/get the job because I’m unlikable and no one wants to be around me,” “The relationship fizzled because I have nothing to offer anyone. It’s no wonder he wants nothing to do with me,” “I am too stupid to do anything right which is why I failed the test.” Second, precisely because they’ve come to think of this treatment as normal, they’re likely to be far more accepting of this kind of abuse in their young adult and adult relationships. Children who are verbally abused often grow up to be verbally abused adults.
What science knows about verbal abuse and the brain
A child’s developing brain is literally and physically changed by verbal abuse, whether it’s the screaming or the quiet kind. The brain adapts to hostility, and among the important parts that are affected are the corpus callosum (transfers motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the brain’s two hemispheres); the hippocampus (which regulates emotion); and the frontal cortex (controls thought and decision making). Other studies show that structural changes to the gray matter in the brain also occur with verbal abuse.
Then, there are the psychological changes which are a function of the child’s self-armoring and pulling away: insecure attachment, fear, rejection sensitivity, difficulty regulating emotion, self-criticism, low self-worth, impaired emotional intelligence, among them.
And all of this can happen without anyone raising his or her voice.
5 Types of more subtle verbal abuse
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list but they are the ones which surface most often when children whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood discuss their experiences and the damage done. These are also the behaviors children tend to normalize, much to their detriment. Because the decibel level doesn’t rise and there’s usually an absence of physically threatening gestures, it’s more difficult for a child or adolescent to recognize the behavior as abusive. They feel the pain, of course, but they’re likely to think that this goes on in households everywhere. Normalizing the treatment is aided and abetted by the self-justification of many parents as well. All of this serves to make the child feel vulnerable and utterly powerless and, often, ashamed.
- The silent treatment
Nothing marginalizes a child more or convinces her of utter unimportance in the world (and the unimportance of her thoughts and feelings) than an adult pretending that the child’s question hasn’t been asked or that she hasn’t said something. We use the word “stonewalling” most often when we talk about this pernicious pattern in adult relationships but children, especially younger ones, aren’t able to read or guess at what is motivating the parent. They feel the chill of being ignored or becoming invisible which is enough to make most small children tremble and quake. Many children, especially older ones, will simply disconnect from their feelings to relieve the hurt.
- Derision or mocking
Shaming a child is often the unloving parent’s weapon of choice and this can be accomplished with words or without. Humiliating a child by rolling your eyes or simply laughing when the child is clearly upset is absolutely devastating and delivers a blow as powerful as a punch in the face. You don’t have to call a child “stupid” out loud to make her or him feel utterly worthless.
- Piling on the criticism
A child does something wrong—knocks over a vase full of flowers, loses a glove, inadvertently tracks mud into the house—and braces for the torrent that begins “You always” or “You never” and picks up steam from there. With a verbally abusive parent, there’s no single incident or mishap but instead a litany of offences, each remembered and recounted no matter how small, that are all highly personalized. It is abusive to tear down a child in this hypercritical and demeaning way even if the tone of voice never rises above that of polite conversation. Verbally abusive parents often justify talking this way by conflating it with “constructive criticism,” “discipline,” or making sure “a child doesn’t get too full of himself.” It is none of that.
It’s gotten a lot of press recently, most usually in the context of adult relationships, but the fact is that abusive parents gaslight children too. My own mother did, even though I highly doubt she knew her behavior had a name. Its name derives from a play that was then made into a movie called Gaslight in which a character played by Charles Boyer tries to convince his wife that she’s losing her mind. Generally, gaslighting involves one person telling another that what he or she thinks happened didn’t happen at all. When you gaslight an adult, it takes some skill and manipulation but it’s remarkably easy for an adult to gaslight a child; after all, the adult is in charge and supposedly knows more than the child, right? So when the adult challenges the child’s recall by saying “I never said that,” “That never happened,” “You’re making it up,” the chances are good that even the feistiest of young child will quickly fold his or her tents. Gaslighting makes a child doubt her thoughts, perceptions, and feelings at a profound level, with many pernicious and long-lasting consequences. It is very destructive
- Deliberate withholding
Infants and children are hardwired to need their mothers’ (and fathers’) love, support, attunement, and attention; they come into life utterly dependent and only become self-sufficient decades after birth. Science now knows that the maturation of the brain, long thought to coincide with the maturation of the physical skeleton, happens sometime in a child’s late twenties. While rarely talked about in the culture, deliberately withholding comfort when a child is afraid or in need or love or attention or support is also abusive. It doesn’t matter whether you call it emotional or verbal abuse or both.
One more thing if you’re a parent
If you justify your or your partner’s behavior thinking that someone has to play the good cop and someone the bad one, or that sweet and sour balance out, or whatever self-justification you use, you need to stop now. The image of things “balancing out” doesn’t apply to emotional development, or the human brain and psyche. We have two different regulatory for the bad stuff and the good stuff, and research shows that the effect of verbal abuse by one parent isn’t mitigated in the slightest by the expression of kindness by the other parent.
Abuse is abuse. Words can break a child. Pay attention.
Photograph by Markzfilter. Copyright Free. Pixaby.com
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.
Tomoda, Akemi, Yi-Shin Sheu, Keren Rab, Hanako Suzuk, Carryl P. Navalta, Ann Polcari, and Martin H. Teicher,” Exposure to parental verbal abuse is associated with increased gray matter volume in superior temporal gyrus,” NeuroImage (2011), 54, 5260-5266.
Finzi-Dottan, Ricky and Toby Karu, “From Emotional Abuse in Childhood to Psychopathology in Adulthood,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (August 2006), vol. `94, no.8, 616-622.
Polcari, Ann, Karen Rabi et al, “Parental Verbal Affection in Childhood Differentially Influence Psychiatric Symptoms and Wellbeing in Young Adulthood,” Child Abuse and Neglect (2014), 38 (1), 91-102.