Brain Sense

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Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones . . . But Words Will Cut Me Deeply

Recognize verbal abuse and take steps to stop it.

verbal abuse

What do you think of as verbal abuse? Name-calling? Taunting? The silent treatment? Verbal abuse can be all those things, but it can be subtle, too.

What Is Verbal Abuse?

While some abusers yell, threaten, ridicule, or humiliate, others wound with words in less obvious ways: "correcting" your mistakes, disparaging your motives, even "suggesting" a course of action "for your own good."

Just as there is no one kind of verbal abuse, there is no single stereotype of the verbal abuser. Wounding words can come from people you hardly know and from those you love the most. Former Miss Virginia Nancy Redd confesses in her latest book, Diet Drama, how thoughtless teasing from a close family member wounded Nancy deeply. In front of others, the relative made jokes about Nancy's "weight problem," leaving Nancy mortified, angry, fuming, and frustrated.

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The relative brushed aside Nancy's complaints about the ribbing: "I was just kidding. You know I think you look great," was the kidder's response, but Nancy still felt hurt. "Poking fun at me made me feel even more insecure about my body and myself than I already did. . . . [My relative] had no idea how much the jokes upset me."

As Nancy Redd learned, words hurt, and the pain doesn't always come from overt threats. Verbal abuse is a lot more than name-calling, says Patricia Evans, author of Teen Torment: Overcoming Verbal Abuse at Home and at School. "Words can be as damaging to the mind as physical blows are to the body," she says. "The scars from verbal assaults can last for years."

Learning from Bullies

Why do friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers launch wounding words your way? One way to answer that question-at least in part-comes from one of the most obvious sources of verbal abuse: the at-school bully. Ian Rivers of Brunel University in the United Kingdom interviewed more than 600 students who admitted to bullying. He found that bullies don't get usually much attention at home, and they face a higher-than-average risk of alcohol and substance abuse. They are also at greater risk for mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and hostility. Rivers came to the conclusion that many bullies abuse others in order to feel better about themselves.

The favorite targets of bullies are those who are different in some way. Any unusual physical attribute can become a bully's target, whether its short or tall stature, over- or under-weight, early or late sexual development--the list goes on. Being too good (or not good enough) on the athletic field and in the classroom can trigger verbal abuse, too.

Stopping Verbal Abuse

Recognizing words that hurt is one thing. Taking steps to stop them is another. As any recipient of hurtful words knows, arguing, pleading, or bullying-back only makes matters worse. Too often, teens cope with verbal abuse with silence, trying to numb their feelings against the pain or find a way to become invisible to the abuser. Avoidance seldom works. It's better, experts say, to talk to a trusted relative, family friend, church leader, or guidance counselor. "Keeping a record and letting others know what is going on are often good first steps," says Evans. She also recommends that schools develop and enforce anti-verbal abuse polices. Similar pacts may be a good idea at home.

If you have been (or are) experiencing verbal abuse, you can take control and find ways to heal your wounds and turn the pain into a positive. The first step is to identify the problem for what it is and take steps to solve it. Nancy Redd did exactly that. She had a serious talk with her relative, and the teasing stopped. Today Redd is a leading advocate for self-acceptance, and her books on positive self-esteem and body image top bestseller lists around the world.

Evans says it's important to reject the abuser's view of your inner reality. "Abusers behave as if they know something about you, for instance, what you are, what you think, what you want," she says. They are wrong. They cannot know or control what you think and feel. Only you can do that.

It's also important to remember that you're not alone. "We need only turn on a TV, watch a movie, or listen to conversations around us to know that verbal abuse permeates both teen and adult culture. It is a societal issue," says Evans--an issue she believes we can solve . . . "one word at a time, one school at a time, one teen at a time."


Credits:

Image courtesy of Dori Hartley.

Faith Brynie, Ph.D, is a scientific and medical writer. She is the author of Brain Sense (Amacom, 2009).

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