What are the Effects of Verbal Abuse on Children?

Posted by: Asa Don Brown on August 16, 2011 8:36 am

What are the effects of verbal abuse on children? How am I defining verbal abuse? Verbal abuse is any aggressive behavior that occurs through human communication. Such behaviors include: belittling, swearing, name-calling, negatively criticizing, threatening, ordering, and the undermining of a person’s integrity.  The intent of verbal abuse is often to prove rude, offensive, disparaging, defamatory, slanderous, and scornful.  It’s overall intent is often to degrade the soul and mind of the individual to such a degree that they are without an ability to retaliate. 

As a therapist, I have heard all types of excuses why verbal abuse is acceptable. Parents have tried blaming their child’s behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions as being the catalyst of their own negative behavior. It is not uncommon to witness a parent deflect, but it is rare to hear a defensive parent accept responsibility.  Moreover, we all know that many parental behaviors are learned behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions.  Parents have learned from watching and witnessing their own parents, teachers, and others who played a significant roles in their life. 

For many parents, they have described their breaking point as being driven over-the-edge. Does your child really have an ability to drive you over-the-edge? Or, are you allowing their behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions to influence your own behavior? Are you not the adult in this scenario? Why are you allowing your child’s behaviors to modify what you know to be the correct type of behavior? Why are you allowing your child to drive you to the edge?

As parents, we are the adults. We are accountable to our children to ensure that they are raised in an environment that is safe, caring, nurturing, and filled with an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance and self-regard.  Why then, do we allow ourselves to get so entrenched in the negative behaviors that we would consider verbally harming our children?

Maybe your way of coping is to lash out. Perhaps you were raised in a home that verbal abuse was a norm. If so, then you have a challenge ahead of you. It is prudent that you curtail your previously known way of verbal discipline or correction, while adapting a sutler way that is positively influential.

In my professional, as well as, my personal opinion; I unequivocally believe that verbal abuse is a criminal act.  If I were to intentionally punch my wife, I would be facing an assortment of criminal charges.  However, if I were to disparage my wife with the intent to cause emotional harm, it is seldom that I would face any formable charges.   Moreover, if I were to use the same tactics in the presence or towards my child,  there would be no greater ramifications.   Why is it that physical abuse is stomped out like a wild blaze, but the very act of verbal hostility is overlooked?

As a practitioner, I don’t believe in comparing and contrasting abuse, because there are no benefits in saying that verbal abuse has a greater impact than that of physical abuse.

In my opinion, abuse is defined by the intent. If I intended on causing harm unto someone, then my character has proven to be reprehensible.  The way with which we speak unto our children, can prove a verbal shield protecting them from possible projectiles aimed at them in the future; or it can prove a verbal slap causing their very person to decay beneath our verbal hostilities. 

Consider the following imagery: you are your child.  You have a parent that is obviously upset over your behaviors. Would you want your parent to call you names, disparage your person, and belittle your future? Or, would you want your parent to calmly and collectively approach the situation discussing the issue on hand? 

You might be saying, it is unrealistic to expect that a parent remain calm.  What if you were standing before a judge for some criminal act? What if that judge decided to call you names, belittle you, and disparage you as a person?  In most cases, you wouldn’t stand for it; and you would probably not only ask for a change of venue, but would probably consider filing a civil suit.  Why then, is it right for a parent who’s role is not only that of a judge but of a consoler, to cause intentional harm?

Are you not raising a maturing adult? Does your child not deserve the same respect that you may desire?  Children are not only deserving of respect, but of a style of parenting that is unconditionally accepting.   Parents are often pushed to the brink when they themselves are without resourceful tools to cope, manage, or deal with their child’s needs, temperament, and personality.   It is important that parents seek sound advice when they no longer have productive resources in their tool belt. 

What are some of the effects of verbal abuse? A child may develop a low self-esteem, self-image, perception or worldview. The child may act out the negative and aggressive behaviors received from their parents.  They may be using substances, alcohol, and illegal narcotics to dull the emotional pain associated with their personal abuse.   For many children, research has shown a correlation between verbal and emotional abuse and many antisocial rooted behaviors.  Sadly, for some children, the pain is too much and they turn to self-mutilation to dull their emotional scars and pain. 

As a parent, don’t you want your child to positively thrive?  Haven’t you had dreams that your child would live a life filled with unconditional parameters including love, joy, peace, and happiness? If so, it begins within you. You are the parent and you can make a tremendous difference not only in the life of your child, but in the life of each person they encounter.  Furthermore, you can prove a beacon of hope, encouragement, and security. When your child makes mistakes, fails, or disobeys, remind them that they are loved; they are worthy; they are beautiful; and they are intelligent.  Your child needs you to be their ally and advocate. They need you to be a positive parent and an influential friend.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

19 comments on “What are the Effects of Verbal Abuse on Children?”

  1. Albert Rose says:

    There’s also a trickier issue, where the parent yells and screams and petrifies the kid and brings up every global issue that the kid has ever “committed”–but insists that she is really just yelling at herself, explaining that “when you’re angry, it’s always at yourself.” Hence, rarely an apology to the poor kid who is terrified and whose behavior brought this on, and who knows it will happen again, no matter how nice and loving she is the rest of the time.

  2. Susan says:

    Dear Dr Brown,
    I cannot tell you how much it means to me to see all my feelings and shortcomings as a result of the unrelenting verbal abuse I suffered throughout my chid hood and my teenage me years, spelled out so clearly in your article. I too was able to forgive my mother when I was 50, but I will never forget the ugly words she spewed at me, telling me that I wasn’t wanted, that I would never amount to anything, that I was lazy, good for nothing and stupid. I lived my life believing everything she told me. I took only menial jobs and I never even dared to “think big” or try to reach beyond my grasp. After years of therapy with a very empathic therapist, i applied to a Community College and finished 3 semesters before I got too sick to attend school. The day I walked up the hill to register was a pivotal day in my life. (My mother never even too my to the first day of school.) I am hoping, with all the on-line learning I will be able to finish my Associates Degree. You have given me hope that although I am limited physically, i still have a keen mind and a desire to learn.
    Thank you for your words of wisdom and clarity.

  3. Susan says:

    Dear Dr Brown,
    Thank you for your words of wisdom.
    I am living proof of the damage verbal (as well as physical) abuse can hawing one’s life. I was one of 8 children and my mother could not cope. I became the outlet for her abuse from the time I was a small child. At that time I had a loving grandmother and many school teachers who made me feel special.
    My mother’s raging escalated when I became a teenager. Her raging escalated to name calling, “You’ll never amount to anything”, “I never wanted you”, “You’re stupid, lazy…”. I’m sure you get the point.
    When I was 17 I met my future husband who came from a very similar background. We were deeply in love and believed we were meant to be together. We married when we were 19 and 20 and had our first child shortly thereafter. It wasn’t easy, but we were determined we would not raise our children the way we were raised. And I’m happy to say, we didn’t!
    I never fulfilled my full potential, moving from menial job to job, often putting up with verbally abusive bosses. I didn’t think I was good enough to have a career or even apply for one. To this day I wonder what I might have been able to accomplish if only my mother’s words weren’t still playing in my head.
    I learned that by forgiving my mother I could let go of the anger I harbored towards her. It took me until I was 50 to do that.
    I am now 72 years old and due to health issues I cannot work and am in constant pain.
    I have spent more than 20 years in therapy finding the demons in my head and doing a lot of PTSD work to put them out of my mind.
    I still work with my trusted therapist on a regular basis because I have the need to keep the peace in my fractured family. I am learning to let go because I cannot control their lives and although I feel I have many words of wisdom (based on my experience) they don’t want to hear it. Letting go of the people you love is hard.

  4. Helen W says:

    As an adult who began her life as a victim of her mothers daily verbal abuse, the long term affects have been catastrophic for me. While I have found peace and joy in my life today, the memories of such abuse still linger and I can sometimes find myself being triggered and having to work at not allowing these triggers to take over my life. My recovery from the Verbal Abuse has been long, emotionally draining, depressing and confusing. I have lost years of happiness, joy and the ability to have and hold onto healthy relationships. Some of the many side affects of my childhood abuse have been identity confusion, (who am I, where do I fit in) self hatred and loathing, inappropriate behaviours such as sexual promiscuity to feel love, attention and acceptance. perfectionism, controlling personality, low self esteem, no confidence, anxiety, fear, depression and these are just a few. I have been on many different kinds of anti anxiety and anti depressive medication to try and balance my emotions and cope with PTSD, severe depression, social anxiety, and other impulsive and inappropriate behaviours. I am today in my mid fifties and know that the best years of my life were taken from me due to my mothers verbal abuse. I am happy to say though that I was able to forgive my mother and recognise that she did not know any better. This does not excuse her behaviour but it eventually allowed me to see that there is a real need to educate parents on the effects of verbal abuse. From my own experiences there are a number of reasons to why parents behave this way and unless we can educate them of the effects of verbal abuse we are creating a future society of adults who will be repeating the behaviours of their parents.

    As a school chaplain, a counsellor and personal life coach I hear and see the affects of verbal abuse on children frequently and it is alarming, and it is increasing. I have been an advocate for children and families for quite some time, and continue to do what I can in encouraging more positive parenting through programs that better equip parents, encourage them, build them up and support them in their role as parents.

    initially I was angry, felt robbed and wanted some kind of revenge for what my own mother did to me however, I have come to recognise that nothing is ever simply black and white. There are many dimensions to ones story and we need to begin by listening without judgement in order to generate change.

  5. Kathrine Aasen says:

    As I am reading this article, you are stating that the parent intent is to hurt the child.
    But what if the name calling, yelling and dismissive behaviour are attems to make the child a better person, someone who won’t make others sick to their stomach?

  6. Dear Khursheed,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    First of all, I do not have a problem with your desire to link to this page. However, I ask that you make contact with the CCPA to ensure that it is okay with them.

    To Link to my author page: http://ccpa.scottbuckingham.ca/blog/?author=27

    To Link to this particular article: http://ccpa.scottbuckingham.ca/blog/?p=867

    Also, I ask that you make contact with the CCPA if you are wanting to repost the article.

    Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association CCPA L’Association canadienne de counseling et de psychothérapie (ACCP) 114-223 Colonnade Rd S Ottawa, On K2E 7K3 Telephone/Téléphone: (613) 237-1099 Toll free (sans frais): 1-877-765-5565 Fax/Télécopieur: 613-237-9786 [email protected]

    I thank you for your time and request.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  7. Khursheed says:

    Great article Asa,
    I used to work as a school counselor and faced many of the points you brought up here where parents ‘blame’ their kids for what clearly is their ‘stuff’ – to the point i wld really wonder who was more the child n who the adult in many cases.:)
    Would love to link this article of yrs on my blog and website, if its ok with you?

  8. I know the effects of verbal abuse. As an adult, I struggle with the negative thinking and relating patterns I experienced growing up. It is not easy to behave differently even knowing better ! Those thought patterns have become entrenched and the brain cells get entrained so that once an abusive sequence begins, it is not easy to derail it. I try to avoid situations that start the chain reaction, but that isn’t always possible. In my experience, the best way to deal with these effects is to inoculate my self on a daily basis : Exercise, Affirmations, Breathwork and gratitude – every day whether I need it or not lol. I don’t really see the value until I don’t do these for awhile – tensions and an explosion are the eventual results of negelcting these simple rituals.

    1. Dear Dr. Travis

      First of all, I am appreciative of your time, feedback, and willingness to share. I agree with you “the best way to deal with these effects is to inoculate my self on a daily basis : Exercise, Affirmations, Breathwork and gratitude.” Likewise, I also feel that we can come to a place of peace and unconditional love of ourselves, because this is what someone that has intentionally or unintentionally harmed us does not want. So, I offer this bit of personal experience, forgiveness and love of self goes a long ways. By the way, forgiveness does not mean acceptance of wrongs, rather it means we want to move forward from the wrongs of the past. It means that we don’t need to carry around the burden brought about by another, and it means that we can live a life beyond the harm we’ve been exposed too. I do hope that these words prove positively beneficial.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

  9. Dear Allana De Graca, M.A., PhD (ABD)

    I am sincerely appreciative of your very warm remarks. I agree that children are yearning for a “voice of protection.” As professionals, we are a fragment of that voice. My hopes are that others outside the professional community will also become advocates for children who are being abused. I am a firm believer that it takes a village to raise a child.

    May my future articles prove equally as beneficial.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  10. Allana Todman- Da Graca says:

    This article was insightful and speaks for the silent children who yearn for the “voice” of protection. The theoretical and practical wisdom in this piece alerts parents to understanding the impact of words. This article and articles like it are needed. Thanks,

    Allana Da Graca, M.A., PhD (ABD)

  11. Dear Dr. Dilley,

    I am sincerely appreciative of your warm comments. I do hope that my future articles for equally as beneficial.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  12. Wonderful insights and thank you for sharing and making the article!!!

  13. Dear Don,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your take on the impact of abuse. We do not have to prove victims, rather, we can learn to become an overcomer. Your take on childhood abuse and it’s affect on the workplace environment is one that intrigues me. I would be interested in reading more on this subject matter, and how abuse influences the workplace environment. It is interesting how the HR world overlaps the field of psychology, and I sincerely appreciate this perspective.

    I am appreciative of your time and constructive remarks.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  14. Don says:

    As a retired global human resources executive, I’ve experienced the outcome of childhood abuse in the workforce. The early years of a child’s life have a major impact on the success/failure of people as they enter the business world. Those who are successful most often grew up in families where the parents were positive role models or they had a positive life changing experience early on in life through a great leader. Through employee development programs and/or psychological counseling, I’ve found that it is never too late to put the affects of early childhood verbal abuse behind oneself and move forward with a positive, successful, and rewarding life.

  15. Adele McLearn says:

    Wow! It is amazing that no matter how old I get, I can always learn something new about myself and those around me! As a grandparent now raising a teenage granddaughter, this will be very helpful in my challenges. Although I don’t believe that I am at all verbally abusive, there are nuggets of wisdom in this article that I will definitely utilize! What I gleaned from this information is that I need to look at my granddaughter as I look at my clients. To be helpful – to share the knowledge that I have to assist in their welfare and in their decision making issues. It should be no different in helping her to make the right choices for her life…by equipping her with the proper tools so that the decisions she chooses will be positive and life changing for her future. Once again, thank you Dr. Brown. Adele

    1. Dear Adele

      I am sincerely appreciative of your valuable time and remarks. I would like commend you on taking the task of raising your grandchild. If everyone would consider showing respect to those they encounter (including family), the world would be a better place.

      Again, I am appreciative of your valuable time and feedback.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

  16. Dear Tracy,

    I am sincerely appreciative of your very thoughtful feedback. I agree, that it is “amazing how powerful and strong the spoken word can be.”

    Again, thank you for your very thoughtful review.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  17. Tracy says:

    Thank you again Dr. Brown for your insightful words. It is amazing how powerful and strong the spoken word can be. A few words spoken out of anger and frustration can wound a child to her core. A few words of love, support and praise can build self esteem, self pride and self worth. We all need to spread more words of love and praise and we will be building a brighter future for everyone.

    Thank you for your encouraging thoughts.


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