5 Reasons Parental Verbal Abuse Is Far More Damaging Than We Thought
If Your Mom or Dad Called You Names
- 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: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. That old brag should be officially retired, however, since science has proven it false. Contrary to what we believed in the past, new research in the field of neuroscience shows that verbal abuse during childhood can be just as harmful as other forms of mistreatment.
The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.— Peggy O'Mara, author of "Natural Family Living"
Name-Calling Destroys the Parent-Child Bond
- When my sister and I entered adolescence, our waif-like frames began to grow curvier, and our dad gave us the nicknames "buffalo butt" and "rhino rump."
- When we became teenagers, he called us "stupid" and "dingbats" when we made small mistakes like 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 or dated someone new.
Even as a youngster, I knew my father's name-calling was juvenile. It made him seem more like a bullying older brother than a warm, loving parent. All these decades later, although he died years ago, 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.
5 Effects of Calling a Child Names
- It can distance a child from both parents.
- It can crush a youngster's self-image.
- It can break down communication.
- It can change a child's brain structure.
- It can be remembered and continue to harm a person for years to come.
Each of these negative effects is described fully below.
1. It Can Distance a Child From Both Parents (Yes, Both)
Although our father's name-calling happened decades ago, it's still hitting our family hard today. For example, our 80-year-old mother needs assistance but my sister refuses to have anything to do with her. As fiercely protective mama bears, she and I simply can't fathom how our mom just stood by as our dad treated us cruelly.
Even if they don't say a thing, a parent can participate in childhood abuse. According to Athena Phillips, a therapist who works with trauma patients, a non-offending parent's inaction creates confusion for survivors of childhood abuse. Survivors will wonder if that parent was complicit in their mistreatment or was yet another victim of it. They question why that parent didn't step in to stop it. As a result, they feel removed not only from the abusive parent but from the non-offending one as well.
2. It Can Crush a Youngster's Self-Image
When children get called names like "fatso" or "loser" at school, it can be damaging to their self-image and make them doubt who they are. However, the impact of name-calling is far more devastating when those hurtful labels get assigned by a parent. Sadly, some moms and dads are under the misconception that their words don't matter to preteens and teens. They incorrectly believe that these older kids only get influenced by their peers.
In his book Surviving Your Child's Adolescence, Dr. Carl Pickhardt says that contrary to popular belief, what parents say still has a huge impact on preteens and teens. He advises moms and dads to think before they speak. 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. However, we found it deeply humiliating. In the years and decades that followed, we struggled with body image, weight, self-esteem, and our relationship with food. Even today, I avoid my reflection in mirrors, windows, and glass doors, frightened to see a hideous monster staring back at me. My sister and I will never know how much our problems were caused by those mean names our father called us so long ago. When I think about it now, though, it still hurts.
3. It Can Break Down Communication
When a parent engages in name-calling, one of the most disastrous effects is that children clam up and withdraw. Feeling worthless and unloved, they may partake 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, impeding communication. Those kids will be careful not to reveal anything to the offending parent that could be used against them.
After years of enduring my father's name-calling, in my teen years, I shut down 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 relationships with him and it could never be repaired. Although he softened in his later years and wanted a deeper connection with us, his name-calling had prevented us from ever bonding with him. The loving, compassionate feelings just weren't there.
4. It Can Change a Child's Brain Structure
Many of us think name-calling isn't nearly as destructive as physical or sexual abuse. In some families (such as my own), name-calling was even viewed as a positive thing—a way to toughen you up and prepare you for the harsh realities of the world. However, new research in the field of neuroscience 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 Stones—Hurtful Words Damage the Brain," Dr. R. Douglas Fields discusses 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 this 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 is 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 Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life
5. It Can Be Remembered for Years to Come
After more than a half-century on this planet, some childhood memories have become murky. But I can still recall 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 ability to clearly recall these horrible name-calling episodes is not unique to me. In "The Enduring Pain of Childhood Verbal Abuse," 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. In other words, those painful memories we'd like to forget are the ones we're most likely to hold onto forever.
This video speaks to the need for more education about the devastating effects of verbal abuse.
A Hopeful Note
Unfortunately, some of us who endured name-calling by a parent keep it alive by using those same derogatory terms on ourselves. 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 was able to connect my self-destructive thoughts and behaviors to my father's name-calling during childhood. Once I saw 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.
My therapist recommended that I read . It helped me transition from the shame that I felt as a young, helpless victim of verbal abuse into a confidant woman who now feels empowered by her past. It helped me realize that I no longer wanted my dad's behavior to hold me back from experiencing all the joy that life has to offer. As horrendous as parental name-calling is, it shouldn't enslave us until the day we die. When we appreciate its serious impact, we have a much better chance of combating its effects and finding peace. Bad Childhood-Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood
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.
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 22
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?
Your parents aren't helping your future by calling you names. It's not motivating or useful under any circumstances. It's just wrong. There's no child psychologist, family therapist, or parenting expert in the entire universe who would recommend that moms and dads engage in such behavior.
When your parents are in a relaxed mood, tell them how you feel when they hurl hurtful labels at you such as lazy and fatty. Use “I messages” so they don't get defensive: “I feel hopeless/angry/sad/disrespected when you call me that. What can we do to stop the name-calling and solve our problems in a constructive way?” (You may want to tell them about the latest research in neuroscience that shows name-calling can alter a child's brain structure and lead to serious issues in the future such as drug addiction).
Stressed out moms and dads often resort to name-calling because they don't have the time, patience, and tools to parent correctly. Name-calling is fast, easy, and maybe familiar if that's what they were subjected to as kids. Having productive conversations and problem-solving sessions take time and effort and require knowledge and skill.
If your household is stressful (as many are), think about ways that you can eliminate some of the burden from your parents. Take responsibility for what you need to do such as cleaning your room and doing your schoolwork. When you see that your mom and dad are overwhelmed, ask how you can help.
Name-calling in a family is typically a symptom of a much bigger problem. Talk to an ally (a grandparent, a teacher, a neighbor, a school counselor) about what's going on at home. It sounds like you and your parents could use some support and may benefit from family therapy.Helpful 6
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!Helpful 6
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.Helpful 5
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.Helpful 5
© 2018 McKenna Meyers