Name-Calling: How a Parent's Verbal Abuse Affects a Child
Parents Who Call Their Children Names Lose Authority
When my sister and I were pubescent, our dad gave us 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.
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.
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?
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.
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© 2018 McKenna Meyers