Aubrey Wood & Kirstie Steel
Many of us would be appalled if we were in a grocery store and watched as a parent smacked the back of their child’s head for the offense of reaching for a box of cookies the parent had just denied. But how many of us would feel the same level of horror if we saw that parent hiss at their child that he or she was being bad, “just like always?” Though no physical harm came to the child, such belittling is abuse. Abuse is defined as anything that is harmful, injurious, or offensive. Verbal abuse can include swearing, threats, insults, bullying, and/or name calling.
The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is not nearly as true as we might want to believe. Although, in the scenarios we are focusing on, there is not physical harm or danger associated with the words, they carry just as much negative power. The wounds of a spoken word remain much longer than those of a physical touch. They can remain with the victims for a long time, and can affect the way they view the world, and themselves.
HelpGuide.org is a non-profit resource designed to help readers resolve a variety of “health challenges.” One of the topics listed on the website is Child Abuse and Neglect. To help the reader obtain a basic knowledge of this topic, the article lists “Myths and facts about child abuse and neglect.” The first of the five myths says: “It’s only abuse if it’s violent.” The article argues this myth by stating: “Physical abuse is just one type of child abuse. Neglect and emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and since they are more subtle, others are less likely to intervene.”
Benj Vardigan in his article “Verbal Abuse of Children” gives a list of the types of verbal abuse – some of them we might not even think of as being abusive:
- “Name-calling, belittling, swearing, and insulting.” Whether these types of criticisms are indirect or intentional, direct or not, they are harmful.
- “Rejecting or threatening with abandonment.” A parent’s love should be unconditional, and the child should know that it is. They should never be threatened with the possibility, no matter how probable, of the love being withdrawn.
- “Threatening bodily harm” is another listed type of verbal abuse. Even if the parent never intends to follow through with this threat, it can create a relationship of fear and distrust. This fear and distrust are not momentary—the child will not “get over it” after the threat has diminished. It will reappear in the child’s life, and will forever be a stain on the relationship.
- “Scapegoating or blaming.” If children are constantly blamed for the things that go wrong, they will begin to truly believe that they are the root of the problem, and that they deserve any negative thing which happens to them.
- “Using sarcasm” is also included on the list. While the person using such a tactic may think that they are letting out their frustrations or anger in a way that the child will not understand, that is not the case. Children, though they may not fully understand the sarcasm, are perceptive enough to know that they are being demeaned and treated unkindly.
- “Berating your spouse.” Children who see their parents verbally abusing one another are more likely to be anxious, depressed, and experience more interpersonal problems of their own. Surprisingly, verbal aggression between parents is more traumatic to children than physical violence among parents.
The effects of verbal abuse are not just harmful in the moment, but can have longer-lasting effects, which can both linger and reappear later in life. About 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse and/or neglect their own children. About 80 percent of children who were abused, in any manner, when they reached the age of 21 were tested and met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
According to a study done by Florida State University researchers, “people who were verbally abused had 1.6 times as many symptoms of depression and anxiety as those who had not been verbally abused and were twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety disorder over their lifetime.” A child who is the victim of verbal abuse can also be susceptible to having a more negative self-image, become more prone to committing self-destructive acts (such as cutting), antisocial behavior, and delayed development.
Regardless of what our relationship may be with the family, Preventchildabuse.org states that to help those who are struggling with verbal abuse (on both the receiving and the administrating end), we can “Be a friend to a parent you know.” Verbal abuse may likely come because the adult is feeling overwhelmed or stressed in their care for the child. If the parents feel that they have a connection within the community, someone who they may depend and rely on, it could take some of the burden off their shoulders, and allow them to feel more at ease with their children, and better able to care for them.
Peggy O’Mara, editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine and author of the book Natural Family Living, has said “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.” As parents, leaders, teachers, or any adult who has stewardship over a child, we carry much more power and influence than we might be aware of. For a child who is verbally abused, they will begin to associate the bad things that happen in their lives with the “truth” in the voice of a trusted adult that drifts back to them, saying how “bad,” “stupid,” or “worthless” they are.
Children depend on us to lead them, teach them, and guide them. We show them the world—they will see it in the color that we paint it. The way they view themselves is largely a result of what we tell them they are.
Kirstie Steel and Aubrey Wood are both students at Brigham Young University-Idaho and are interested in Family and Child Advocacy.