“It still amazes me that uttering one little phrase or one little sentence can so rapidly and so completely change the way I feel about whatever is going on. Words hold such power.”
– Psychologist Albert Ellis (Ellis & Powers, 2000, p. 137)
Verbal abuse is widely accepted in American society, and so parents and teachers alike tend to either minimize its effects or dismiss outright the harm it causes. This attitude is entirely at odds with research about what harms children the most. It may only be words, but contrary to the lies we tell children, the injury this verbal battery causes can cut far deeper into the soul than sticks and stones ever would.
Women who have suffered both physical and verbal abuse at the hands of their partners commonly remark that the verbal battery is far worse than the beatings. (Evans, 1993) When researchers have examined the most destructive outcomes across different forms of child abuse, they’ve discovered that verbal abuse can be 7-times more correlated with lasting harm than something like sexual abuse. (Ney et al., 1994) Verbal abuse even barely edged out physical abuse in leading to long term destruction. That’s right: hurtful comments – those verbal insults and injuries we tell our kids shouldn’t bother them – commonly cause far more damage in the long run than those other things parents freak out about.
The reason for this is simple: child abuse is ultimately about messages. It’s harm is delivered primarily through the negative ideas a child learns to identify themselves with, not the particular actions they may experience. When a child is struck by a caretaker, this injury may sting in the moment. Yet it’s the messages a child takes away from that incident which will last and continue to cause problems into the future. In this regard, though we like to downplay its significance, verbal and emotional abuse is actually child abuse in its purest form. It goes straight to the destructive messages without the formality of having to lay a finger on a child. As a comedian on Comedy Central once astutely remarked, “I don’t understand why parents would beat their children when scarring them emotionally is so much more effective.” Although verbal abuse from peers usually holds less power than that from caretakers or loved ones, it can still cause significant injury. (You can read more about verbal abuse and its relation to other forms of child abuse in our book: ‘Child Maltreatment: A Cross Comparison.’)
Types of verbal bullying
Verbal bullying can take several forms, ranging from the obvious name-calling to more subtle types of verbal aggression that may sneak under the radar but which can be every bit as damaging:
Verbal bullying through name-calling and direct insults
Verbal bullying most commonly takes the form of name calling. There are insults that attack a teen’s sexuality (fag, pencil dick, dyke, slut, whore, etc.). There are insults that attack a child’s intelligence (you’re such a retard, moron). Other insults attack a child’s social standing (loser, reject, freak). Or children may invent insults that specifically address a physical characteristic of the child (Quasimodo, lard ass, butter butt, four-eyes). A child being verbally bullied may experience insults about one aspect of their identity, such as sexuality or physical looks, but more commonly they experience verbal attacks that run the gamut, thus attacking every aspect of a child’s personal identity.
Verbal bullying through subtle put-downs
Verbal bullying can involve repeatedly making derogatory statements about the victim, such as…
– Can’t you ever do anything right?
– God, even my grandmother knows that.
– Is it possible for you to be any more annoying?
– Don’t you even realize how stupid that sounds?
– Good job, you managed not to totally screw it up this time.
Though each incident by itself may not seem all that significant, these types of insults most commonly emerge out of a pattern of verbal abuse, in which the aggressor continually cuts down the victim piece by piece to make them feel like a lesser, more inferior person. The subtleness of such cutting remarks can be their most potent aspect. Unlike name-calling, these subtle put-downs tend to sneak under a child’s defenses, since they aren’t as openly hostile and don’t seem like an outright attack. Thus, a child may lend such remarks more credence than those times when someone just flat out calls them names. Over time, the youth begins to think that they truly are an inferior person.
Verbal bullying through negative comparisons
Negative comparisons are a more subtle type of verbal abuse that compares the child to something (or someone) else in a way that reflects negatively upon them:
- I bet everyone else in the world but you knows that
- You’re such a freak, just like _____________.
- You and (some other outcast) are like two peas in a pod.