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Do You Know What Abusive or Toxic Behavior Looks Like? Some Common Confusions

Not long ago, a friend complained about an encounter she’d had with a business associate who she said was incredibly abusive. She was adamant about the fact that he’d crossed an important line and she was considering getting in contact with his higher-ups. When I asked what he’d done that she considered abusive, she recounted an argument they’d had. To be honest, it didn’t sound abusive but more of a garden-variety disagreement. None of the hallmarks of abusive treatment popped up: he hadn’t personalized the argument by calling her names or disparaging her; his tone remained even and he displayed no contempt for her point of view; he hadn’t raised his voice or threatened her. It seemed to me that they’d had a disagreement which, while intense, was nonetheless civil.

That got me thinking about what constitutes abusive or toxic behavior and how calling someone abusive or toxic has become a buzzword of sorts, on the one hand, and how, on the other, we often have great trouble calling verbal and emotional abuse out when they’re actively going on.

Letting verbal abuse slide

Because of my focus on adults, especially daughters, whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood, I am very familiar with the cycle of denial, rationalization, and excuse of verbal abuse. Often, when these daughters speak about their mothers, it’s excuses first: “It’s just how she is. She means nothing by it,” or “My mother had a hard childhood and doesn’t get it hurts,” or “She is really loving but doesn’t know how to show it.” Much of this is unconscious, beginning in childhood, when the child normalizes the abuse, whether it’s the screaming-and-yelling kind or the quiet type which consists of ignoring the child, freezing her out emotionally and physically, or pretending she hasn’t said a word. Normalization is first driven by believing that what happens at your house goes on everywhere and then is bolstered by other impulses, first and foremost of which is the need for that person’s love, and the hopefulness that, somehow, you will be able to get it. That is true with parents and, alas, with lovers and spouses.

It’s worth saying too that we also normalize verbal abuse so as to avoid confrontation; it sometimes seems easier to take the lashing than to deal with it. That is obviously not a good thing.

Some typical confusions about verbal abuse

Abusive behavior is driven by an agenda, most often a need to control either a person or a situation. Losing your temper, on the other hand, happens to just about all of us; it’s usually a moment in which your frustration tips the scales and your reasonable self disappears in a hot cloud of anger. This is not good behavior, by any means, but it can be distinguished from the behavior of someone who uses screaming and yelling as a tool of intimidation and belittlement on a regular basis. And there’s another difference too: the first instance—of spontaneous bad behavior—is usually followed by feelings of remorse as well apologies and amends, while the second is not.

Is criticism always abusive?

It is not; people offer constructive criticism in all different kinds of settings and it’s totally appropriate. But criticism which is highly personal by referring to your character flaws or intends to shame or marginalize you is abusive. A statement that begins with “You always” or “You never,” includes a litany or enumeration of your faults, and conveys contempt has crossed the line into abuse. Again, think about what motivates the speaker: Is she or he trying to help you better yourself or improve a skill, or is the intention to put you down and make you feel terrible about yourself?

If you grew up with a verbally abuse parent or one who was hypercritical, you need to make sure that you are responding to criticism in the present, and not reacting to echoes of the past. For more information on how to dismantle old triggers, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Is it abusive to discipline a child?

Well, let’s talk about the word “discipline” first which carries with it the idea that you are punishing someone for an infraction of rules. It’s true that children need boundaries, and they also need to be taught what kinds of behavior are appropriate and which aren’t. They need to be praised for prosocial behavior and they need to be spoken to about antisocial or aggressive actions. But any kind of discipline that includes physical punishment or words that are intended to shame and make the child feel less than is abusive, as is a threat to withhold love if the child doesn’t toe the line in the future. Verbal abuse is often rationalized by parents by insisting that they are making sure “the child doesn’t get too full of himself” (not true) or that they’d be lazy if they weren’t shamed (shame doesn’t motivate anyone) but they are just looking away from their own bad parenting. You can absolutely guide and teach a child rules and boundaries without ever being abusive.

Your job as a parent is that of an attentive teacher, not a cruel taskmaster whose aim is make a child feel terrible about him or herself.

Is the silent treatment abusive?

Absolutely. Many people wrongly believe that verbal abuse must be loud and threatening but ignoring someone, pretending they haven’t said a word, or stonewalling them is controlling and meant to have an emotional impact. These are all deliberate actions, meant to cut people off and to assert power over them. In contrast, it is not abusive to tell someone that you’re too upset to talk at the moment but will later.

Abuse does not require a raised voice.

Stay focused on motivation

Words can, indeed, be weapons and you should have little tolerance for anyone who uses them as an arsenal on the daily; verbal abuse is not okay. But don’t use the word “abusive” lightly either; blurring the lines doesn’t help anyone, especially since our culture is still wrongly fixated on requiring abuse to entail physical harm. Pay attention to the person’s patterns of behavior and motivation; that will tell you much.



Photograph by Roberto Delgado Webb. Copyright free.

Do You Know What Abusive or Toxic Behavior Looks Like? Some Common Confusions

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2019). Do You Know What Abusive or Toxic Behavior Looks Like? Some Common Confusions. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Sep 2019
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