“Emotional abuse is pandemic in middle-class America, and it often affects children longer and more deeply than physical abuse.”
– Child Abuse Specialist David. R.Walters (1975, p. 37)
“While physical and sexual abuse can be quantified and categorized according to bruises, fractures, burns, rape … emotional and verbal abuse – the pattern of continually undermining and belittling a child through criticism and verbal attacks – is equally damaging, and much more insidious. Verbal abuse is more common than either physical or sexual abuse, and yet it is seldom adequately identified or treated.”
– Slaby & Garfinkel, psychologists who work with teen suicides, (1996, p. 88)
“Verbal abuse is a form of domestic violence. It is a form of psychological and emotional torture. It is a form of brainwashing.”
– Dr. Albert Ellis & Marcia Grad Powers (2000, p.46)
We all remember the school yard phrase: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Anyone who has lived beyond the age of four also knows this to be one of the biggest lies ever told. Words do hurt, and they can have a profound impact. A verbal assault can be just as severe as any physical attack. The verbal abuse of children is one of the most prevalent types of abuse in our society, and it’s also among the most damaging. It manages to avoid public scrutiny, in part because it is so common, and in part because it’s tedious to define and measure, as it occurs in numerous forms and doesn’t leave a physical trace. (Bojkova, 2008; Evans, 1993) Yet despite this lack of attention, verbal abuse is generally more harmful than the other forms of abuse which do garner the public spotlight.
One meta-analysis of 208 studies, encompassing 6,153 individuals who were subjected to various forms of stress, found that the worst of all stressors was when someone was the recipient of harsh criticism and was helpless to do anything about it. (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004) Both are indicative of a child’s situation during verbal abuse. Cortisol levels spiked the most when the source of stress was personal and judgmental, and the chemical remained in the brain for longer periods after the stressor. While these studies encompassed adults, (they would have been considered unethical to conduct on children), there is no reason to presume that results would differ any among children. This gives definitive validity (at least in physiological terms) to verbal abuse as among the most severe of all forms of maltreatment. Other research which has cross-compared abusive environments tends to confirm such suspicions. One group studied the worst combinations of child abuse and neglect and found verbal abuse to be 1.17 times more associated with harm than physical neglect, 1.4 times worse than physical abuse or emotional neglect, and 7 times more associated with lasting harm than childhood sexual abuse. (Ney et al., 1994)
In his thesis ‘Incubated in Terror,’ Perry (1997, p. 126) accurately observes that “the most destructive violence does not break bones, it breaks minds” and that “emotional violence does not result in the death of the body, it results in the death of the soul.” Hibbard et ale (2012, p. 372) agree, stating that psychological forms of maltreatment “may be the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect” and that emotional abuse is “just as harmful as other types of maltreatment.” (p. 376) Other child abuse specialists have lamented the fact that even though emotional abuse seems to be both more prevalent and MORE HARMFUL than other forms of child abuse, it receives little attention from authorities or the criminal justice system. (Keith-Oaks, 1990)
Indeed, professionals of all backgrounds are coming to the conclusion that the effects of emotional abuse may be more severe than those of physical or sexual abuse, seeing as verbal/emotional abuse results in greater declines in mental and psychological development. (Jacoby, 1985) Those who work with teen suicides note that verbal and psychological abuse seems to be the most difficult to treat (Slaby & Garfinkel, 1994, p. 89), lending further validity to the idea that it is also the most destructive. As Frazier, Morgan & Hayes (1993, pp. 3-4) state, “There is growing consensus among professionals that emotional maltreatment appears to be an integral part of all forms of abuse. Because of its pervasive nature, some believe it is as harmful as, or more harmful than, other forms of abuse.” They add that in comparison to other types of abuse, “its impact is more destructive on development.” Claussen and Crittenden (1991) also weigh in on the topic to a similar effect, saying that there is a rapidly growing recognition among professionals that psychological maltreatment may be particularly instrumental in harming children.
Additional evidence about the destructiveness of verbal/emotional abuse in relation to other types of abuse can be obtained through the testimony of those who have endured both. Steve Simpson, a youth advocate working with teen runaways, who also came from an abusive home as a child, notes that “as someone whose had both (physical and verbal abuse) . . . I can tell you that verbal is even worse than the physical, because it trashes your self-esteem.” (CNN News, 10-24-09)
His sentiments are hardly unique. Those who know maltreatment issues know that far more damage can be done with a single cutting remark than with anything physical. Though testimonials from children are virtually non-existent because of obvious methodological barriers in collecting them, analysis of verbally abused adults reaffirms this principle. In her 1993 book, Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out, Patricia Evans documents a mountain of evidence about how destructive simple words can be. One survivor of verbal abuse remarks that, “A ‘lifetime’ later and years after (her abuser’s) death I talked to a doctor. When I told the doctor that mine is not a pretty story, he asked, ‘Did he beat you up?’ I said, ‘No, only with words’ and he said, ‘I have seen people shredded to pieces by verbal abuse; it is worse than by beating.’” (Evans, 1993, p. 72)
Another describes verbal abuse as “bloodless murder.” (ibid, p. 90) Another tells of her experience in a domestic violence support group: “To learn more about verbal abuse and control issues, I attended a support group for abused women for over two years. Week after week, women would walk in with broken bones, bruises, cuts. They’d tell about being taken to the hospital emergency room, some more than once. With woman after woman, I’d ask: ‘Which was worse in your relationship, the physical abuse or the verbal abuse?’ And without exception the answer was the verbal abuse, ‘Truly! ‘” (ibid, p. 122) Patricia Evans’ own research of verbal abuse supports these testimonials, reporting that “many … say that the mental anguish of verbal abuse is much worse than being hit.” (ibid, p. 145) Other authors concur, stating that “sharp words hurt more than a slap in the face.” (Guarino, 1991) Yes, someone can cause more injury to a child and deliver more hurt with a stinging tongue than could be done by assaulting them.
Of course, this should not be anything new … we’ve been warned that “the tongue is mightier than the sword” for thousands of years, and we all know from personal experience just how hurtful words can be. Hurtful words can cause negative emotions, stress, physiological changes in the body, poor self-esteem, social problems, future detriments in adulthood, and emotional abuse often leads to suicide. In other words, it can cause all the damage of any other type of serious abuse, perhaps even more, all without physically laying a hand on a child.