Why is verbal abuse so harmful?

Child abuse is typically framed in terms of physical and sexual abuse. The seriousness of verbal abuse is yet to be popularly acknowledged, despite evidence that:

Scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing can be as harmful as physical abuse, sexual abuse outside the home, or witnessing physical abuse at home

The original study can be accessed here.

Why is verbal abuse so harmful?

The study authors note that “Verbal abuse may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, because it’s often more continuous”. Indeed, rampant verbal abuse can be unrelenting and diverse.

But apart from its potential frequency and unrelenting nature, verbal abuse is harmful because it purports to convey the abuser’s perception of reality – their truth – to the detriment of the victim’s own perception of reality.

Children depend entirely on their parents or caregivers for survival, and strong psychological bonds of attachment are formed between children and their caregivers, all things being equal.

All forms of verbal and non-verbal communication are of utmost importance to the attachment bond. The child knows nothing of the attachment figure beyond what is communicated to them, directly or indirectly.

Verbal abuse, when examined in specific forms such as scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing, communicate supposed “truths” of the caregiver’s reality.

They communicate hostility, negative assessment of the child’s worth and value, and indicate to the child that there is something wrong with the attachment relationship, and that it is the child’s fault.

Verbal abuse says to the child “in my eyes, this is the kind of treatment you deserve”.

In the context of total dependence on the parent or caregiver, the child either takes these communications at face value and internalises their content, or recognises that the person on whom he or she depends is unstable, untrustworthy, and potentially hostile. Neither of these bodes well for the child’s development.





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