Help Us Help Others:

Direct Attacks & Name Calling
This is the form of verbal hostility people most commonly envision when they think of verbal/emotional abuse. It consists of statements which directly attack a child:

“You’re stupid”
“I don’t like you. Go away.”
“You’re a lazy, worthless, fat little pig.”
“I can’t believe I gave birth to such a retard.”
“You’re such a shithead.”
“God hates little children like you who can’t behave themselves.”

All name-calling achieves the desired effect of hurting the child and making them feel bad about themselves. It produces the whole gamut of negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness, hurt, shame, betrayal); it causes a social injury, and it will induce stress. It also damages attachment when it comes from a caretaker. A few little words can produce big effects.

Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 143) write about the case of one father who “did not hesitate to make abundantly clear to his little daughter his views about the inferiority of women. He insulted her openly on visits, calling her ‘little bitch’ and ‘stupid.’” They remark that “There’s almost no way a little girl hearing this can escape internalizing the view that she’s an inferior being.”

Direct attacks can also take the form of taunting or teasing a child about a particular attribute of themselves. Consider this example from Walters (1975, p. 47): “Edward was 7, introspective, quiet, and read a lot. He did not care for the outdoor life of his two older brothers and his father, who ‘lives for outdoor activities.’ Frequently taunted by his brothers and father as a ‘sissy,’ Edward began to break fishing rods, lines, and other equipment. When he was caught by his father in the act of cutting a hole in a tent, he was severely beaten and was denied food for three days.”

This type of taunting can be devastating – and is a lot more common than you might imagine. Sadly, children whose interests/abilities/personalities differ from the family or contradict the parent’s wishes are often severely taunted by their siblings or even the parents themselves. This story also provides a perfect example of how abuse can be reciprocal: A child is verbally abused, and so feeling deeply wounded, they act up. When they act up, they draw the anger and ire of the

Subtle Put-downs

Subtle put-downs may fall short of verbal attacks, but they can be every bit as devastating to the child:

“You’ll never amount to anything.”
“You’re such a disappointment.”
“Mommy used to be happy before you were born.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I guess I can’t depend on you for anything.”
“Can’t you ever do anything right?!”
“None of this would have happened if you weren’t so (fill with insult of choice)”
“Don’t you ever think before you do stuff?”
“Stop being so stupid.”

These put-downs accomplish the same result as direct attacks: the child feels injured and bad about themselves. In fact, in many ways they are more insidious, because their subtle nature allows them to sneak in under the radar of the child’s defenses, planting their message without raising the red flags that direct attacks do. It’s easy to spot hostility that occurs through direct attacks, whereas subtle put-downs can be more deceptive and more readily assimilate themselves into a child’s psychology, particularly when they occur repeatedly.

Help Us Help Others: