5 Reasons Parental Verbal Abuse Is Far More Damaging Than We Thought
- 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 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 than a warm and loving parent. All these decades later and him long dead, I started wondering what effects his verbal abuse had on my life. I decided to research how parental name-calling impacts a child. I discovered it can be far more devastating than we 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 get assigned to them by a parent. Sadly, some moms and dads are under the misconception that preteens and teens don't care what they say, only putting stock in the opinions of their peers.
In his book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence, Dr. Carl Pickhardt says that young people absolutely do value what their parents say. He advises moms and dads 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, however, 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, and 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 on the grounds that it's scientifically inaccurate. Words are indeed powerful things, and they can do far 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?
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.Helpful 20
My parents have been calling me names like fatty, lazy, and others much worse. This past week has been very stressful and they called me a mess up. Is it okay? They're only looking out for my future so should I let it happen?
How does the parent decide or when do they decide to stop the name calling?
A parent stops the name calling immediately once they understand the long-term damage it's doing to their child. Then, they take ownership of their bad behavior, apologize to their youngster, and vow not to do it any more. Because the name calling is a symptom of a bigger problem in their parenting (that most likely stems from childhood), they need to examine the root causes of it. They may need to seek out a therapist or take parenting classes to fundamentally change the dynamic they have with their youngster.
Parenting expert, Peggy O'Mara, said: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” From my own experience as a victim of my father's name calling, I can say that this was tragically true. I'm now in my fifties and my dad is long gone, but the labels he stuck on me as a kid remain even though I've tried desperately to shake them. When he called my sister and me “buffalo butt” and “rhino rump,” he branded us for a lifetime. We've both struggled with eating disorders, poor body image, and low self-esteem.
Looking back on my dad's behavior from an adult perspective, I see how wounded he was from his own childhood. When interacting with my aunt, his sister, I witnessed the hostile sibling rivalry between them. As an adult, I realized that he had re-created that relationship with me when I was a kid. With his name calling and other immature antics, he had always behaved more like a resentful brother than a mature, loving father.
When parents call their kids names, they're usually reverting back to their wounded selves as children. They cease to be grownups. That's why they often need extra help through therapy or parenting classes to reclaim their status as the respected matriarchs and patriarchs in their homes.
Thanks for your question!
How do I cope with parental verbal abuse because I'm a teen and I've been having mental breakdowns today?
You cope by being proactive. I'm so glad you read the article and now understand the seriousness of parental verbal abuse. Please talk to a trusted adult immediately about what's happening in your home and how it's affecting your mental well-being. Discuss it with a school counselor, a grandparent, a teacher, a neighbor. Show them the research in neuroscience that explains how name-calling has the potential to alter the structure of the brain, having a negative impact for years to come.
Parental verbal abuse is typically a symptom of larger problems in the home. You, your parents, and your siblings may need to attend family counseling together. Your mom and dad may need to attend parenting classes. You may need to see a therapist. You may need to live somewhere else until the situation in the house improves. Your parent is off track and needs some help to do better.
Start taking better care of your mental and physical health. Spend time with friends. Share with them what's going on and how it's affecting you. The worst thing you can do is keep your emotions bottled up, causing you undue anguish. Focus on exercising, eating right, meditating, and spending time in nature. Write about your feelings and experiences in a journal.
Most importantly, don't try to handle this by yourself. Reach out to someone right away and keep reaching out until someone hears you and helps you. I'm keeping you in my thoughts and hoping for the best.
If your parent calls you a name and you don’t like it, what do you do?
It's not useful to confront your parent at the time of the name-calling when they're upset. Pointing it out at that moment will only make them hostile, defensive, and unable to absorb the emotion behind what you're communicating. Wait until you're both in a relaxed mood to bring up the matter.
If your parent is especially sensitive to criticism, bring up the subject in a general way. Share the latest research in neuroscience that shows how verbal abuse can alter the brain's structure and lead to long-term problems. Have them recall a time from their childhood when they were called a name and ask how it made them feel.
If you choose to talk about your parent's specific behavior, use “I messages” to diffuse the situation. For example, say: “I feel hurt/sad/betrayed when you say that.” Don't say it in an accusatory way: “You always call me that when you're mad and you're causing me so much pain!” When people think a finger is being pointed at them, they tend to shut down and stop listening.
If your attempts are unsuccessful, turn to a trusted family member or family friend and ask them to discuss it with your parents. I'm glad that you're being pro-active and looking out for your own well-being. I know how miserable it is to grow up in a home with parental name-calling.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers