Parental Verbal Abuse: 5 Ways It's Far More Damaging Than Previously Thought

Updated on July 19, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Ms. Meyers is a former teacher, long-time advocate for kids, and a writer on issues in early childhood education.

  • Did one or both of your parents call you derogatory names when you were growing up?
  • Did you ever wonder how that name-calling affected you as a child and now as an adult?
  • Did you know that name-calling can change the structure of a youngster's brain and lead to long-term problems in life?

We've all heard that childhood chant, Stick and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. That sentiment, though, should now be officially retired as science has proven it inaccurate. Contrary to what we've believed in the past, new research in the field of neuroscience shows that verbal abuse during childhood can be just just as harmful as other forms of mistreatment.

Parents abuse their power when hurling hurtful names at their children.
Parents abuse their power when hurling hurtful names at their children. | Source

Parents Who Call Their Children Names Lose Authority

When my sister and I were pubescent, our dad bestowed us with the nicknames buffalo butt and rhino rump as our waif-like frames began to grow curvier. When we became teenagers, he called us stupid and dingbats when we made mistakes like all young people do: misplacing our car keys or leaving too many lights on in the house. When we began dating, he labeled us tramps and said we were acting slutty when we broke up with a boyfriend and dated someone new.

Even as a youngster, I knew his name-calling was juvenile. It made him seem more like a bullying older brother to me than a warm and loving parent. All these decades later and him long dead, though, I started wondering what effects his verbal abuse had on my life other than making me feel like I didn't have a father. I decided to research how a parent's name-calling impacts a child's life and discovered it can be far more devastating than I ever imagined in five significant ways.

The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.

— Peggy O'Mara, author of "Natural Family Living"

1. Name-Calling Can Distance a Child From the Offending Parent But Also From the One Who Stood By and Let It Happen

Although our father's name-calling happened decades ago, it's hitting our family full-force today. Our 80-year-old mother needs more assistance, but my sister refuses to have anything to do with her. Recently divorced after a long-term marriage, she now (rightly or wrongly) blames our mom for all her problems in life. After rearing children of our own and being fiercely protective of them, my sister and I can no longer excuse our mom for her dereliction of maternal duties.

Athena Phillips, a therapist who works with trauma patients, says the non-offending parent's inaction creates confusion for survivors of childhood abuse. They wonder if the parent who did nothing was complicit in their mistreatment or was yet another victim of it. They question why their parent didn't step in and stop the cruel behavior. Sadly, these doubts distance them from not only the abusive parent but the non-offending one as well, making them feel alone and unloved.

2. Name-Calling Can Damage a Youngster's Self-Image at a Critical Time During Their Development

When youngsters get called names at school such as fatso, loser, and fag, it can be damaging to their self-image and make them doubt who they are. The impact of name-calling is far more devastating, though, when those hurtful labels are assigned to them by a parent. Some moms and dads wrongly believe that preteens and teens don't value what they say and only put stock in what their peers offer. In his book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence, Dr. Carl Pickhardt says this is not the case and advises parents to think before they speak, choosing their words carefully. He warns, “parents remain the most powerful source of social approval in a teenager's world, and they need to be mindful of that.”

When my father dubbed my sister and me rhino rump and buffalo butt when we were preteens, he thought it was clever and funny. We found it deeply humiliating. In the years and decades that followed, we struggled with our body image, our weight, our relationship with food, and our self-esteem. Even today I avoid my reflection in mirrors, windows, and glass doors, frightened to see a hideous monster staring back at me. We'll never know how much of our problems were caused by those idiotic monikers our father bestowed on us so long ago. When I think about it now, though, it still hurts.

Name-calling by a parent can have a profound negative impact on a youngster's self-image.
Name-calling by a parent can have a profound negative impact on a youngster's self-image. | Source

3. Name-Calling Can Break Down Communication Between Parent and Child

When a parent engages in name-calling, one of the most disastrous effects is that children clam up and withdrawal. Feeling worthless and unloved, they may take part in self-destructive behaviors such as drinking, using drugs, hanging out with the wrong crowd, self-mutilating, or having unprotected sex. They may no longer trust the parent who labeled them so communication between the two grows less frequent. They're careful not to reveal anything to the offending parent that could be use against them.

After years of enduring my father's name-calling, I shut down during my teen years and rarely spoke to him. My sister went off to college, married right after graduation, and never returned home again. My dad's verbal abuse during our growing up years contaminated our relationship with him and it could never be repaired. He softened in his later years and wanted a deeper connection with us, but we had never bonded with him because of the name-calling. The loving, compassionate feelings weren't there.

Contrary to popular belief, name-calling and other forms of verbal mistreatment can be as detrimental as physical and sexual abuse.
Contrary to popular belief, name-calling and other forms of verbal mistreatment can be as detrimental as physical and sexual abuse. | Source

4. Name-Calling Can Change a Child's Brain Structure

Many of us think name-calling isn't nearly as destructive as physical and sexual abuse. In some families (such as my own), it was even viewed as a positive thing—a way to “toughen you up” and prepare you for the harsh realities of the world. New research in the field of neuroscience, however, shows that verbal abuse during childhood can be just as harmful as other forms of mistreatment. It can have a lasting effect on the structure of the brain and lead to anxiety, depression, hostility, learning deficits, behavioral issues, and drug abuse.

In "Sticks and Stone—Hurtful Words Damage the Brain" in Psychology Today, Dr. R. Douglas Fields writes about a recent study conducted at Harvard Medical School using magnetic resonance imagining (MRI). The findings show that name-calling, taunting, and other forms of verbal abuse left a structural imprint on the developing brains of preteens and teens. Fields writes, “now we have scientific instruments that show us how dramatically childhood experience alters the physical structure of the brain, and how sensitive we are as children to environmental effects. Words—verbal harassment—from peers (and, as a previous study from these researchers showed, verbal abuse from a child's parents) can cause far more than emotional harm.”

As someone who's battled depression and social anxiety most of my life, I find these findings illuminating. While I certainly realized my father's name-calling made me feel sad and helpless, I had no idea it had the potential to change the structure of my brain at a critical point in its development. The old schoolyard chant about sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me should be retired permanently on the grounds that it's scientifically inaccurate. Words are indeed powerful things, and they can do way more damage than we ever imagined.

The first step in recovering from verbal abuse...is recognizing that it took place. This is often difficult for many reasons, including “normalizing” the household; still wanting a connection to the parent or parents; buying into the cultural notion that verbal abuse isn’t really corrosive; and more. The good news is that with help and support, that internalized tape loop can be shut off and replaced with not just a more affirming message, but—at long last—one which finally reflects who you are.

— Peg Streep, author of "The Enduring Pain of Childhood Verbal Abuse"

5. Name-Calling Can Be Remembered for Years to Come, Causing Lots of Suffering

After more than a half-century on this planet, my childhood memories have become murky and modest. I can still recall, though, the exact locations in my family home where I stood when my father called me buffalo butt. I can still remember how I wanted to flee the house and never come back. I can still remember feeling betrayed and belittled. I can still remember the embarrassment I felt as my siblings watched.

It turns out my uncanny ability to recall these horrible name-calling episodes is not unique to me. In her article, "The Enduring Pain of Childhood Verbal Abuse," in Psychology Today, Peg Streep explains that humans store such assaults in their brains for evolutionary reasons. Any kind of attack—physical, emotional, or verbal—is kept alive in our memories as a way to survive potential threats in the future.

Unfortunately, some who endured name-calling by a parent keep it alive by using derogatory terms on themselves. For many decades, I had a negative tape running in my head whenever I said something awkward at a party or mentioned something trivial at an office meeting. The tape would say something like this: You're so stupid. You shouldn't have said that. What a loser you are! Everybody thinks you're a real knucklehead. I hate you.

In therapy I connected my self-destructive thoughts and behaviors to my father's name-calling during childhood. Once I made that link I was able to stop being so mean to myself. I began to feel compassion for that girl whose dad did so much damage to her self-esteem with his cruel words. I became determined to treat her kindly because she had already suffered enough.

What about you?

Did your parents call you hurtful names when you were a child?

See results
Bad Childhood-Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood
Bad Childhood-Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood

If a parent called you names when you were a child like mine did, it's easy to get stuck in your pain. That happened to me as I ruminated about the shame my dad inflicted upon me and how it damaged my self-esteem. Yet, as the years turned into decades, I wanted desperately to move on from my victim-hood This book helped me do just that. Today, the hurt from the past has been put into proper perspective, and I finally feel in control of my life. I live in the present and am deeply grateful for my blessings. If you're feeling stuck from mistreatment in your childhood, please read this book now so you don't waste precious time like I did.

 

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

  • How should a child respond to a verbally abusive parent?

    When parents are upset, out of control, and calling names, it's pointless for a child to say anything until they have calmed down. When they're in a relaxed mood, the youngster can explain how much the name-calling hurts, using “I messages” (I feel scared when you get angry and call me stupid. I feel sad and just want to give up when you say that I'm fat). The “I messages” will make the parent less defensive and more likely to listen, take in what's being said, and connect with the youngster on an emotional level. The child can also bring up the latest research in neuroscience that shows name-calling can change brain structure and lead to long-term problems.

    Unfortunately, some parents who stoop to name-calling are immature bullies. Throwing out hurtful labels makes them feel powerful and superior. They have little compassion for the unfortunate person on the receiving end of their insults, even when it's their own child. When it was happening to me as a kid, there was nothing I could have said or done that would have made my father stop. The worst part was that my mother stood by and let it happen. All these decades later, that still brings me the most pain.

    Therefore, I'd encourage children who are being verbally abused to tell a trusted adult who can intervene on their behalf. Tell a grandparent, a teacher, a school counselor, a neighbor, or a friend's parent. The worst thing youngsters can do is keep it to themselves and internal those dreadful messages. They need an adult to validate their feelings, tell them that the name-calling is unacceptable, and be willing to discuss it with their parent. Children shouldn't have to handle this on their own and need compassionate grownups to step up and advocate for them.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      6 weeks ago from Bend, OR

      Hattie, I realize the economic realities of your situation, but please try your hardest to get out of that home...for your own sake and the sake of your child. The name-calling is so destructive and you don't want it to contaminate the next generation. Like your mother, mine stood by and let it happen, only to wonder years later why my self-esteem was in the toilet. As Peggy O'Mara said, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” It literally took me decades to finally stop hearing in my head the negative labels my dad had given me. Because of them, I had such a horribly distorted view of my weight, my appearance, and my intellect. You need to start forming a positive self-image but that won't happen in the house with your tormentor. I'm keeping you and your child in my thoughts and prayers!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      6 weeks ago from Bend, OR

      Bettybb, don't be pained by what you see in the phony world of Facebook. Instead, be proud of extricating yourself from an abusive situation. The love you felt for your children was so strong that it motivated you to finally end it with your mother in order to protect them. Sadly, not every mom is strong enough to do that, and the cycle of abuse continues. I, too, believe my father was replicating with me the sibling rivalry he had during childhood with his sister. He always behaved more like a mean, bullying brother to me than a wise, loving dad. Enjoy your life and the freedom that comes from being away from an immature and abusive name-calling parent!

    • profile image

      Hattie 

      6 weeks ago

      I was called stupid and my sister fat at 4 she could eat a cheeseburger and he called her double cheese I was Ricky retardo and still now he makes stupid jokes comments on my weight my hair what I’m wearing he says he’s teasing I feel like the reason I never felt I could do anything is because I always viewed myself as stupid my mother never said anything I got into an abusive relationship and my mom was like you’ve always had such low self esteem why do you think that is ? It took me a long time to figure it out that maybe I was born with low self esteem but I think it’s that . I feel like even now if I say I’m gojbf to the gym his remark is you’ll quit or when I got food stamps he said negatively you’ll never use them I have severe depression and doing anything is hard I had a kid young and am stuck in there house for now he’s said things when my rooms a mess you’re an asshole

    • profile image

      bettybb 

      6 weeks ago

      This is a great article! My mother was physically and emotionally abusive (I was also sexually abused by another relative.). I was tall, and she called me a sow, a cow, a heifer, a long-legged grasshopper, Bigfoot, and more. She often made derogatory references about how unattractive being "big-boned" was and would often draw other's attention to my various physical flaws. She especially savored it when someone joined her in the criticism.

      She also called me lazy, stupid, and countless other names that devalued my mentality. My mother hated me. I think it was because I resembled her sister whom she had a lifelong rivalry with. She also had a lot of resentment for my father whom she believes cheated on her. He'd walked out on her when I was an infant and never looked back.

      When I was in my late 20s, married with kids of my own, I decided that I could no longer tolerate my mother in my life anymore--especially when her abuse started to affect my children. She slighted and ignored them in favor of my brother's children.

      After cutting contact with her, she devalued me to the rest of the family. They never forgave me for cutting her out of my life. I don't think they believe me about the abuse as she always seems to sweet and kind around them.

      Anyway, that was 20-years ago. I'm now the black sheep, left out of everything, and it's painful to see photos of get-togethers, birthday parties, etc. on Facebook.

      The part in the article about never bonding, because of the abuse is so accurate. I have some feelings for my mother, and through the years, I've suffered a great deal of pain about the way things are, but I never fully bonded with my mother the way my siblings did.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 months ago from Bend, OR

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ken. I hope the science will change behavior, making name-calling a thing of the past like beatings and factory work.

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      3 months ago from Florida

      Good article, important topic.

      Being a parent is tough, it really takes work and effort to try and do the right things, knowing that everything you do is programming your children to one degree or another... effecting their self-image, or how they look at the world.

      We are all human, you try and do the best you can.

      For myself, learning about what my father went through as a child, and how he grew up helped me understand his perspectives better and why he did some of the things he did.

      It was only a generation or two ago (depending on your age) that children were regularly beaten, not just by parents, but by school teachers, and others in society as well.

      Go further back, and children as young as six could have been working in factories or anywhere else just to help the family get by.

      Recognizing you were abused is a boon, because you can work to counter it... and you can work to make sure you don't pass it along to your kids.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm in the process of writing my memoirs, and that gave me a chance to reflect again on your article. No, it did not happen to me. I'm certain of that....great information here, McKenna!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      5 months ago from Bend, OR

      I'm sorry that happened to you. We take that hurt from our childhood into adulthood, and it's hard to shake. It takes parents just a few thoughtless seconds to say it and years for us to get over it.

    • profile image

      Nobody 

      5 months ago

      I have had this happen to me. It still hurts. :(

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I've seen the damage that can occur when a parent abuses a child in such a way...it happened in our extended family,and it is ugly. Thank you for raising awareness about this, and Happy New Year to you and yours.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      12 months ago from Bend, OR

      Thank, Dora. I love that Peggy O'Mara quote, too. I think all parents should have that on their refrigerators as a daily reminder.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      12 months ago from The Caribbean

      You confronted a very serious family problem in this article, and you presented it well. I hope that parents and parents-to-be will read and learn. That Peggy O'Mara quote is worth a daily reminder. Glad you were wise enough to seek professional help. Best to you going forward!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      12 months ago from Bend, OR

      Now that we have scientific evidence that verbal abuse can affect brain structure I think pediatricians should mention this to all new parents. I see so much name-calling happening online that it's ridiculous to think it's not happening in people's homes on a regular basis.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      12 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh my yes!!!!!!!!!

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