We all remember the childhood chant “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We had it wrong! Hurtful words can cause significant harm. Names will forever hurt, especially when parents do the name-calling.

Verbal or emotional abuse conveys that one is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting someone else’s needs. It includes:
• Belittling, name-calling, degrading, shaming, ridiculing, or humiliating
• Making one feel unsafe by slamming a door, bashing an object, or threatening severe punishment
• Setting unrealistic expectations with threat of loss of affection or physical harm if not met
• Ignoring, being emotionally cold and unsupportive, withdrawing comfort as a means of discipline
• Rejecting, avoiding, or pushing one away
• Describing one negatively
• Openly admitting dislike or hating the person

Children who were verbally abused grow up to be self-critical adults who are more likely to experience depression and anxiety (Sachs-Ericsson). They had almost twice as many symptoms as those who had not been verbally abused. They were also twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety disorder. Sachs-Ericsson studied more than 5,600 people ages 15 to 54; and surprisingly, nearly 30% reported they were sometimes or often verbally abused by a parent.

Emotional abuse occurs for many of the same reasons that physical abuse occurs. When one is stressed, they may lash out verbally and physically. Some who verbally abuse may have learned this parenting style from their own parents. They may be unaware of positive ways to motivate or discipline their children.

Verbal abuse can have long-term effects. Over time, one begins to believe the negative things they hear about themselves. They use those negative statements and thoughts as explanations for anything that goes wrong. One may use negative self-talk and believe “I’m stupid” or “I’m lazy” or “I’m no good.” When the message is repeatedly conveyed by someone, the pattern of self-criticism and negative thinking follows oneself through one’s life. Self-criticism makes a person more prone to depression and anxiety.

Research by Martin Teicher at the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, shows that verbal abuse during childhood may have an impact on mental health that is even greater than other forms of abuse. Parental verbal abuse affects a child’s developing brain and is also a powerful negative model for interpersonal communication that impacts a child’s future relationships.

Physical abuse might leave physical scars, but verbal abuse leaves invisible scars that may never heal. The impact of verbal abuse on vulnerable, developing children lasts a lifetime. Sticks and stones will break our bones, but unkind words are even more destructive and enduring.

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