The following describes accounts of child sexual and physical abuse, which the Innocent Lives Foundation works to prevent. This blog contains content that some individuals may find disturbing or distressing in nature. Please be emotionally prepared before proceeding.
Names, locations, and other identifying information have been changed for the safety of the victims and the Innocent Lives Foundation team. Any similarity to actual names, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Authors: Dr. Abbie Maroño
Published: October 23, 2023
I really hate the phrase “Words can never hurt me.” In actuality, words can have long-lasting effects on physical well-being and mental health. This is particularly the case for young children, who soak up their experiences in the social world like sponges, learning to recognize what is and is not acceptable. For children who live in verbally abusive homes, being shouted at or spoken to in a demeaning manner is ‘normal’ and thus becomes a template for what to expect and accept from future relationships. Hence, the warped normalisation of abusive behaviour during childhood increases the risk of experiencing domestic abuse in adulthood.
As well as this, verbal abuse is directly associated with the increased development of self-criticism, which, in turn, leads to the internalization of worthlessness. We will dive more into this point shortly, but let’s first look at what verbal abuse actually is.
What Is Verbal Abuse?
In the context of a parent-child relationship, verbal abuse refers to a pattern of harmful and hurtful language used by a parent or caregiver towards their child. It involves the consistent use of words, tone, or gestures that belittle, demean, threaten, intimidate, or humiliate the child. This includes communication styles characterized by yelling, screaming, and swearing. However, it is important to note that the occasional argument, disagreement, or raised voice is normal and does not necessarily constitute verbal abuse. Rather, verbal abuse involves a consistent pattern of harmful communication that damages the child’s emotional well-being and sense of self-worth. For example, excessive criticism, blaming the child for things that are out of their control, or comparing them to other children who are “better and more deserving than you are”.
Unlike physical abuse, in which the signs are physically apparent, the signs of verbal abuse can easily go unnoticed. What’s more, the dangerous effects of verbal abuse are often vastly underestimated.
Verbally abusive parents often say things like, “You are a bad kid”, “You are worthless”, “I wish I wasn’t your mother”, “I wish you were like those other kids”, “You’re pathetic”, “You’re a bully”. Although hearing a mother tell her child “I wish you did not exist” may be shocking and horrifying to most of us, to some children it is routine.
Even for an adult, being spoken to in this way can be extremely damaging, but for a child, it inevitably leads to diminished feelings of self-worth. Indeed, research has shown that verbally abused children internalize negative evaluations of the self and tend to believe that others see them in the same way they see themselves; worthless. As you can imagine, this diminished self-worth makes it exceptionally difficult for the child to set healthy boundaries and thus build and maintain healthy relationships in later life.
Feeling like you are worthless, like you have no value like you are a burden to those around you, is an unimaginably lonely experience, one that no child should have to suffer. For those who do suffer through this painful self-criticism, the aftermath often comes in the form of psychopathology, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.
Verbal Abuse And The Brain
The human brain is an extraordinary feat of evolutionary pressures, with an astounding ability to change its morphology based on environmental factors and early experiences. Consequently, growing up in a safe and nurturing environment supports healthy brain development, whilst maltreatment can negatively impact brain development and alter the way the brain functions.
In fact, seminal research has shown that parental verbal abuse may be associated with alterations in brain regions that play a critical role in the processing of language and speech (left superior temporal gyrus). Likewise, further studies have associated verbal abuse with reduced structural integrity of brain white matter bundles, as well as decreased brain grey matter volumes in regions responsible for sensory processing, emotional regulation, and language and memory. This point is one that should not be breezed over. Grey and white matter enable the exchange of information and communication between different areas of the brain. Damage or loss is a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases, memory loss, impaired cognitive function and increased risk of dementia.
Evidently, words do leave scars, and these scars take the form of psychopathology and deficits in brain maturation.
For The Parents
As the saying goes, parenting is the toughest job there is, and inevitably there are going to be times that you feel frustrated with your children, but no matter the reason, it is never acceptable to verbally degrade your child.
For individuals both with and without children, life can be challenging at the best of times, and I am sure that many of us have felt like we are at breaking point, barely able to look after ourselves let alone another human being. If you are a parent and you find yourself in this position, I urge you to please reach out to friends and loved ones for support, or to seek help from professional services.
There are also resources available online that can help direct you to the most appropriate means of support. For example, https://www.childwelfare.gov/ offers many resources and services designed to help support families.
If you suspect that you or someone you know is experiencing parental verbal abuse, it is essential to seek help from a trusted adult, counselor, therapist, or a helpline specializing in child abuse or domestic violence.