One Little Statement, Lasting Pain
One of the primary reasons verbal and emotional abuse is so destructive is because it tends to be interwoven into the environment, and therefore occurs fairly regularly and one a substantial period of time.
Yet that doesn’t mean verbal abuse must happen regularly in order to do a child significant harm. In fact, (sadly) it’s quite possible to inflict scars that persist through a single errant statement–particularly when the experience passes without reconciliation or comforting; when it aggravates a pre-existing fear the child may have; or when it attacks something very close and personal in nature.
Not any old insult can do the trick. We don’t intend to insinuate that children are such delicate flowers that a little name-calling is too much to recover from. But there are certain types of verbal/emotional attacks that are so hurtful and severe that they are quite capable of producing severe, lasting injury with a single delivery, especially if the child is particularly sensitive to begin with. Here are some examples.
1. Telling a child that “they were a mistake,” or that it was a mistake to have them
Such an accusation attacks a child at their most intimate and profound level: their identity as someone who is loved and wanted. And once you open this Pandora’s box with such a statement, it’s hard to put the lid back on. Even if you retract it later, it often remains a nagging doubt in the child’s mind, and they may suspect that your true, underlying feelings were revealed on that day in such a statement, and that your rebuttal of it now is merely a half-hearted attempt to bury the hatchet or be a good parent. If the messages of the statement or doubts remain, it can cause lasting injury, because a child who grows up feeling unwanted tends to develop numerous psychological problems because of it.
2. Threatening to abandon them or give them up
Particularly with younger children, threatening to abandon them plays into their most profound fears, and can leave a long-lasting scar. Psychologists Rusk & Rusk write about the story of a parent who, in a moment of anger and frustration, threatened to send her child to an orphanage. (Rusk & Rusk, 1988, p. 225) This one hollow threat caused such an injury that it became a source of numerous problems throughout childhood, and even troubled her decades later as an adult. Threats such as “if you don’t straighten up, I’ll send you to an institution” attack attachment and can be very hurtful if the child assumes you are even somewhat serious.
3. Telling a child to kill themselves/that you wish they were dead
If you care about a child, you shouldn’t wish them dead. Yet you’d be surprised at how commonly parents will say such a thing to their offspring in a moment of anger. A few unfortunate parents have said something like this, only to get their wish a few moments later, when the child committed suicide.
4. Pouring salt in the wound or twisting the dagger
When a child already feels deeply insecure or ashamed over a personal issue/experience of some type, it is not a good time to aggravate the injury. For example, a child was dumped in a humiliating way by her boyfriend, in front of peers at school, and is extremely sensitive over the issue. When arguing, Dad makes a hurtful comment along the lines of “John knew what a Bitch you are, and that’s why he treated you exactly as you deserve.” Astonishingly, many parents will do precisely this, inflicting the maximum wound with their statement by targeting a child’s vulnerabilities. Parents who do such things can be assured of a couple of givens: 1st) The child may not ever forgive them, and 2nd) They are likely to carry this personal injury with them for years to come. It will be a thorn in their side that aggravates the relationship.
Though most verbal abuse occurs subconsciously and is much like alcoholism in that the adult can’t really help themselves, and just as often doesn’t even realize their behavior is abusive, a few conniving individuals DO know the power of their statements. Some adult verbal abusers have bragged about their ability to “draw blood” with a single cutting remark, which by their own admission, shows how powerful individual incidents can be. (Evans, 1993) Whenever verbal abuse can create persisting social hurt or plant a message in the child’s head that doesn’t go away, it has the potential to act much like chronic abuse, because it continues to play out in the child’s mind over and over again. Statements that attack attachment and/or social belonging are especially hurtful. The child begins to think: “if mom or dad can’t love me, then I must be unlovable.”
Furthermore, the science behind mechanisms of injury show a single incident of verbal abuse to be just as destructive as any other single incident of abuse. We know how efficiently personal attacks can induce severe stress reactions, that they seem to create the highest spikes in cortisol, and that these same stress reactions can be brought forth time and time again merely by recalling this personal attack. (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004; Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004) This is not wild conjecture or dubious testimonials; we can measure these things physiologically. There is as much solid, scientific evidence documenting the potential for injury from a single instance of verbal abuse as there is for the more recognized forms of child abuse. Words do hurt, and they can accomplish just as much destruction as a fist.