Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Verbal Abuse of Children: What Can You Do About It?

What can be done when parents, who are supposed to be nurturing their children, instead treat them destructively with deprecating comments, raging, and by using them as pawns to fight their own battles? Read More

Growing Up with Emotional and verbal Abuse

I grew up with a mother like this and here is what helped me become a "normal" person and mother to three very successful children. My father loved me unconditionally, however died when I was 14 years old. I had enough morality by the age of 14 to know what was right and wrong, so intervene early.

If you can spend time with the children and show them what a normal family does, that is helpful. I went to my aunt and uncles, and four cousins home about every Friday night. I learned what it was like to go to a ball game on Friday night, watch scary movies, and basically tear up the house. On Saturday morning, it was our reaponsibility to put it all back together again. We would go get groceries to re-stock the house for what ws needed for the comimng week, then start all over again. Some normalcy. I also vacationed with them once a year, and we would go on a "real vacation." Leave the area for one full wekk, go someplace fun, and be at our liesure all week. My parents never would have done that. It was always good to get a break from mother and her issues and behavior (rants).

Children who live with mothers like this can have a long road ahead of them. They should be educated early on that they are not responible for their mother's happiness or lot in life. Sometimes breaking away can be the hardest, but most essential thing the child can do.

If the children are in school, talk to their school counselor. School counselors in most cases will be receptive of the information and look for ways they can help. Although it doesn't change the mother's problem(s), it give the child more support areas, and hopefully the mother less control over the child. Get the child social.

Good role models can be found at church, social clubs, sports and schools. Chiuldren learn from many aspects in life. Do what you can. Even taking the kids out for a fun meal or to a zoo, and life experience can help. Stay involved and don't let the kids manage on their own. Lots of support. Best Wishes.

Wow. This comment is SO helpful.

No one has more wisdom on this issue than someone like you who has experienced being in the situation and knows from that personal experience what makes a difference. Thank you so much for sharing with all of us.

Great Post

I am so glad that you had aunts and uncles who reached out to you, and that you could go on to thrive and raise well-loved children of your own.

As the family scapegoat surrounded by enabling relatives and siblings, I had no one to turn to after the never-ending, extremely articulate verbal and emotional abuse from my mother. Added to this was brutal physical abuse (no witnesses, of course) along with the vicious verbal abuse during my toddler years and up until I was big enough to fight back to try to defend myself. (My father was an emotionally distant war vet who buried himself in his work, ergo a passive enabler.)

This was my normal and I spent a lifetime feeling empty, rootless and deflated with low self-esteem. I never grasped the reality: child abuse. After all, my mother was well-educated and from a very "well-to-do" family, so did not fit the abuser stereotype of decades ago, i.e. poor or "low-class." When I finally woke up several years ago after my mother's death (and having served as her verbally-savaged caregiver the last 18 months before her death), it was like a volcano exploding in my subconscious with memories surging up that I had buried deeply. Topical articles at this website and several others, plus books by authors like the late Alice Miller, helped me come to terms with the soul-eviscerating damage from a mother who - I found out after her death - threw a tantrum in her hospital bed after I was born, claiming she never wanted me and how my arrival had ruined her life.

I'm almost 60, never married (never even had a boyfriend). All my life my mother drilled into me daily that no man would ever want me. When I took care of her before her death, she reminded me several times that she WAS right that no man would ever want me, since I never married.

Today, I don't know who to be angrier with - my mother - a hateful woman who NEVER loved me and only wanted to see me be miserable and fail - or myself for not having awakened decades earlier to the reality that this was CHILD ABUSE, pure and simple. But this was all before the internet and I grew up in a dysfunctional family where anything to do with psychology and psychiatry was denigrated and ridiculed. And, of course, my mother always made me out to be the "crazy one" in the family. I realize now that was all a part of covering her tracks, so to speak. I have had counseling recently, but I still have a way to go.

The lesson from my story is that if you know a child is being abused, HELP THEM HOWEVER YOU CAN. And urge the adult survivors of child abuse to get counseling - a step I should have taken decades earlier. The mental pain I have endured is excruciating after living in a lifetime of denial about it all. NO CHILD should have to endure this kind of hell on earth.

Missing someone

I understand your comments and agree. but I don't think that enough attention is paid to the "passive enabler" parent's role.

This is just my opinion, but I marvel at people who have one abusive parent and adore the non-abusive parent who stands by and does nothing. That, in my view, is not just "passive enabler" conduct. It is the other half of the "abuse and neglect" duo.

What I wonder is why children (and therapists) don't bring this out. Parents who don't take on their abusive partners for the sake of their children, in my opinion, are just engaging in neglect. The neglectful parent should not get a pass on this.

A passive enabler parent and his/her children are not equally situated victims in this kind of situation. I believe that it is the duty of a parent to protect children -- even at cost of harm/abuse to him/herself by the abusive parent.

Thank you, thank you

You both make a vitally important contribution by sharing your stores and viewpoints.

@Been There, "Soul-eviscerating damage" says it all.

@ John B, I totally agree that therapists do not generally pay nearly enough attention to the impacts that their borderline clients are probably having on their children.

Passive Enabler Parent

You make excellent points. In my case, when I was younger I put my father on a pedestal simply because he did not abuse me the way my mother did. He came back from WWII a completely broken man who never discussed his feelings. Just incapable of dealing with emotions, especially with the emotions of his own children. I worshiped him for working so hard to support us, but now I know his work was the way he escaped from my mother and her constant tirades and household chaos.

As much as it hurts to never have married and have children, I would rather be alone than have the kind of spouse that my mother was. Sadly, my father spent four years of wartime hell only to come home to a different hell when he married my self-centered mother.

I can relate

Your story resonates with me, Been There. Like you, I put my father on a pedestal because he was the parent who didn't terrify the crap out of me with out-of-control rages, he never battered me, never even touched me in anger, and he never destroyed my soul, my self-esteem with verbally/emotionally vitriolic abuse like my bpd mother did.

But on the other hand my father didn't step forward in an assertive way, like a responsible parent, and intervene when his bpd wife engaged in verbal, emotional and physical abuse of us children, and he set no rules or limits on her parenting behaviors. He was a very non-confrontational kind of guy.

When our mother/his wife would focus her rage on him, he'd take the verbal abuse for a little while, and he might yell back at her for a few minutes but then he'd just bolt, leaving the house to drive around for hours until she'd cooled off. Mother usually "cooled off" by screaming at and battering Sister and me; dad had escaped but she wasn't "done" yet.

Unless there is a responsible, mentally healthy adult in the picture, living in the home or at least living nearby who is both willing and able to set strict rules RE their bpd spouse's or ex's parenting behaviors, the children are basically screwed.

Children in such circumstances have no option but to develop very unhealthy coping mechanisms when their primary caregiver is emotionally disregulated, unpredictable (highly impulsive), engages in self-harming or other-harming behaviors, views the child as "all good" or "all bad" (or alternates between the two) and is paranoid and dissociative under stress.

My younger Sister developed big blocks of amnesia regarding her childhood and young teen years, and I lost my ability to feel my emotions. My memory is pretty intact, but I simply stopped feeling anything, for the most part. Now in late middle age, Sister and I are starting to remember and feel things more normally.

Just spending some time with a child, modelling calm, rational, joyful, mentally healthy behaviors for the child, reassuring the child that he or she is a good person, reassuring the child that he or she is not the cause of their parent's emotional illness, reassuring the child that you actually like the child and enjoy their company, telling the child that you believe in him or her, that you have no doubt that they'll do fine in life and can count on you for advice and support... that kind of thing will go a LONG way toward helping the children of mentally ill parents buffer their resilience and give them hope.

Emotions, Memories and Feelings

Annie, thank you for your thoughtful, articulate reply. Our situations sound so similar! If anyone can understand the HORROR of what you and your sister endured, I can.

In my case, I was the family scapegoat so my siblings learned real fast that they could get off the hook with my mother by telling her lies about me that she so badly wanted to hear and use as ammunition to verbally and physically abuse me more. (I hope that you and your sister were always able to bond together against such madness.) Needless to say, I've been in "no contact" with my greedy siblings since my mother's death and I woke up about the pure evil of it all.

In regard to your paragraph about what you and your sister have experienced -- amnesia, inability to feel emotions, and problems with memory recall -- I totally understand, as I have experienced similar reactions! I developed a sort of amnesia about the worst of the toddler and early-years abuse, essentially BURYING those memories when I was 12 after I confronted my mother about this early abuse - only to be told that I was a manipulative little liar. Plus I felt empty for decades, only to realize now that I was just plain numb on "auto-pilot" and could not feel emotions properly.

Since my mother's death, the emotions have erupted like a volcano, just constantly flowing. I thought I was going mad, but what saved me was reading everything I could about child abuse and how the effects can really hit adult survivors later in life if they had never fully confronted the pain before. The memories now are still overwhelming, along with the emotions, but I am slowly getting better at "regulating" them. What also has helped was to pour out my memories and feelings to an amazing therapist last year. He totally believed me and stressed to me that all my reactions were typical of an adult survivor of child abuse who is finally confronting the truth about the past.

It really helps immensely to hear from other sensitive, perceptive adults like you who have gone through the same HELL. I seem to take one step forward and two steps backwards as I process all this dysfunctional garbage, but the good news is that the steps or strides forward are getting larger and the steps backwards are getting smaller - if that makes any sense!

Thank you so much again for sharing your story. Blessings to both you and your sister.

im disappointed you tried to

im disappointed you tried to place blame on the father.

Placing blame is seldom helpful.

I agree with this anonymous comment that placing blame is inherently a mistaken project. All of us do the best we can. As I once read somewhere, "If we knew better, we would do better."

We all make mistakes. Mistakes are for learning. This forum is a place for all of us to see the grave mistakes we and/or our parents have made in order to learn from them.

At the same time, it is a HUGE and traumatically consequential mistake for either parent to allow verbal abuse toward their children.

You couldn't be more invalidating

Wow. How can you say that my father was blameless when he was the relatively mentally healthy parent in our home, the only one who *could* have stepped in and made a positive difference, but didn't?

That is so incredibly cruel and invalidating of you, when you weren't there to witness the repetitive emotional and physical abuse I and my Sister endured. And yet, even though he passively allowed Sister and me to be chronically maltreated, I idealized my father and loved him fiercely; he was the parent that I identified with and wasn't afraid of, even if he didn't have the strength of character to do the difficult but right thing.

I'm disappointed in you for saying such an insensitive thing.

My apologies if my comment sounded invalidating....

My apologies to you if it is my comment that you are referring to that sounded invalidating. That wasn't my intent, but clearly the way I wrote it conveyed something other than what I had intended.

Let me clarify further. Your father clearly totally missed out on doing the single most important thing that parents should be doing, which is to protect their children from harm. That was a tragic mistake on his part. I regard it as a moral as well as a parenting/psychological failing, as he was the adult there and he did not step forward to block the harm that was being done to innocent children.

I do feel that he bears responsibility for having stayed a silent bystander, which enabled the abuse to continue.

At the same time, I have trouble with the concept of "blame." In my own thinking, I try to find more compassionate words, less accusatory, more in line with "hate the sin, not the sinner." For me, blame is hard because while your dad did act in a way that was cowardly, I assume, those responses stemmed from deficits in his own personal history, temperament, or something....

While that explains the rationale of what I was thinking, I do want to reiterate again that I do take seriously your reaction of feeling invalidated. It may be that my distinctions are splitting hairs in a situation like this where your Dad's inaction had such dreadful consequences.

Thank you so much for sharing your feelings....

Passive Parent

I'll answer this question for you. I left home for college about ten years before anyone ever even identified BPD as a syndrome.

Yes, the truth is that my dad "enabled" my high-functioning BPD mother. But no one knew what BPD was and my mom didn't hit us or threaten our safety, although I realize that some BPDs do - there are a lot of different BPDs.

My dad was the only person who didn't simply look away when my mother told me I was a good for nothing idiot. He was the only person who indicated to me that sometimes my mom didn't tell the truth and that he believed me.

So you want me to dislike my dad for being the only person who dared to cross my mom and affirm me? In an era when no one knew what BPD was?

Actually, my therapist *did* tell me I should get mad at my dad (he's deceased, by the way). But I can't just produce feelings because someone tells me I should feel them, as any child of a BPD should know.

BPD manifests itself in a lot of different ways. If my mother had tried to drop me off a bridge and my dad hadn't intervened, I'd be darn angry at him. As it is, I'm MORE angry at all the other relatives who said nothing as my mother told a bald-faced lie and whose silence just added to me feeling like I was crazy and seeing things - as she accused me of. And who then would constantly tell me what a wonderful woman she was.

I love my dad because he didn't think I was crazy and because he believed in me.


I don't want you to dislike anyone. But, after living with an (at least) second generation BPD/NPD woman, I noted that while she had a, to say the least, complicated/angry relationship with her mother, she revered her father -- who from my observations, gave the mother largely free behavior rein.

I didn't understand the relationship at all. I think I violated her "sense of balance" when I refused to stand-by and permit the same kind of behaviors.

I am not here to judge or tell people on the receiving ends of those relationships how to feel. But, I can tell you from the outside looking in, it is hard to comprehend.

In answer to the brow-beaten/real-beaten males, I understand his statistics. But, I still believe that you have to do what you have to do to protect your children. Accepting abuse of yourself is hard to explain -- I accepted it. It is embarrassing. It took a long time to come up with some sort of explanation to myself of why I permitted it to happen. But, that is not the same, at least to me, as accepting abuse to children, especially younger children.

This is just my view. I understand that we all are different, have different points of view and have different strengths, capacities, weaknesses and limits.

well i think that men are so

well i think that men are so browbeaten that they dont know what protecting their kids means anymore. if you become patty hearst-ed in a relationship, you come to believe gertrude knows best.

Thanks for sharing your

Thanks for sharing your story. I hope you won't be mad at yourself for long--it's certainly not your fault. An upbringing like that would have not only hurt you deeply, but also have prevented you from seeking help--so in reaching the decision to go for therapy, you had a double whammy to overcome. Don't be too hard on yourself for something that took more strength, courage and character than you probably realize.

How do I help

My son's gf is in a very abusive home in my opinion. Her mother has told her she should have aborted her when she had the chance to. Her father hasn't looked or spoken to her in days. The parents are married, but in counseling. The more the counseling continues the worse the father treats her. I have purchased every stitch of clothing, shoes, hair/body product for her in the past year. So tonight the father got mad at her, shut down the air conditioning on her side of the house, they have a split unit so the parents have their own ac, which is set on 76. All light bulbs were removed from her room except for one. She can only shower twice a week. The temp is about 105 with heat index. The father spends approximately $400 a month on his gym membership and approximately $300 a month on protein shakes, yet he cannot provide for her as far as clothing or school supplies. In fact she was "punished" so they refused to take her to get paper and pencils for school this year. My son showed up at their house and they agreed to let her go school shopping with him as long as he paid for it. I don't know what to do except to support her financially and pray until she turns 18. Any thoughts?

Bravo to you.

Bravo to you for stepping up and helping this poor young woman. Your kindness to her, as well as your financial support and prayer, are likely to go a long way toward helping her to survive a difficult family situation.

If a young person has a neighbor, friend, boyfriend or someone who validates that the abusive parent is the problem, and that his behavior is not her fault, that validation also makes a huge difference.

Thank you for your response.

Thank you for your response. As of my last posting, I understand the parents are considering giving me custody of her. My primary concern would be physical custody as I would be saving the parents to face the high school that they don't have custody. Her mom is really good at the school issues and I'm not trying to change that. I just want her to have a safe home to go home to at night where she won't feel threatened. I think she needs a relationship with parents, even if it's limited at this point, until they can get back on the right track. Right now they are considering in-house therapy for their issues. Thanks again for your comments.

Where you stand

If you are a co-parent with an abusive in the house or out of the house, you have to do what you can to stop the abuse. This will shift the abuse to you, but, that's your job, in my view. I think that a parent who watches a spouse do this and sits it out is complicit in the fall out from the abuse.

With other people's children, I think that you can encourage your children to invite their not so fortunate friends into a calmer environment.

This is very hard for children -- parents are supposed to be safe. When parents are abusive, the children have to try to bring order to their world and twist things to confirm that their upbringing is with parents who love them.

The eventual realization that an abusive parent does not act loving, despite the parent's subjective belief that they love their children, is so, so very hard for children (and later as adults) to understand and accept.

Another Great Post

Thank you, John, for your wise comments. I came to that "eventual realization" late in life and it has been devastating. (But I think that deep down I knew it subconsciously for decades but lived in massive denial, numbing my emotions about it all.)

The children who have you as their father will be very lucky and blessed.

To Anonymous of "Thanks for Sharing..."

Thank you so much for your very kind, compassionate words of support. Bless you for caring!

and what about these mothers

and what about these mothers who never yell, but are oh so expert in the art of condescension and mockery?

A lot of harm can come from carefully chosen words.


Looks can kill. Comtempt, sarcasm, condescension, mockery...they are quieter but equally damaging modes of verbal abuse.

i think we should also

i think we should also consider the fact that in households with abusive women, the men are often browbeaten into silence too.

It is commonplace to assume men are aggressors and violent beasts, but the fact is 60 percent of domestic abuse is committed by women.

In this society a man who claims to be abused is not only ignored he is often laughed out of the police station. Thats a sad reality.

Many men are simply mocked and abused into silence. Calling the father an enabler is like one molested child calling another molested child an enabler.

BPD/NPD type people are very

BPD/NPD type people are very good at attracting the type of spouses and friends required to allow then to continue with minimal challenge. My father was an emotionally distant big tough guy with the kids, but a huge wimp with my mother. He did NOTHING to challenge my mothers alcoholism emotional and physical abusiveness. When I hit my early teens (youngest of 4 kids) my father started to soften, got more emotional and began to complain about some of the same issues I had with my moms abusiveness, tantrums and general irresponsibility. I started to think I had someone that could help. NOPE! Never trust an enabler. One day I challenged my mother during one of her tantrums while my father was home. He came out of nowhere, tossed me across the room like a rag doll, started to choke me out and said if I ever disrespect my mother like that again he would kill me. There was my first lesson on the fact that the non BPD spouse can be just as invested in maintaining the status quo as the BPD spouse. I think very rarely are they truly a passive victim. That's why its so hard for the non-BPD, or maybe even impossible for them to change the situation or intervene by themselves. They are an integral and necessary ingredient to the awfulness. Yin and Yang, drug dealer to drug user. They "picked" each other because they need each other to pacify whatever pathology exists inside their silly heads.


Bravo to the lady who wants to support her nieces but isn't sure how best to go about it.

I think back to how I survived our outrageous BPD mother and nearly-invisible father, and I think my grandparents played a large part. While they never spoke against my parents, barely acknowledging the alcoholism and the abuse, they did provide a regular break on weekends, and almost every weekend at that. They couldn't address our emotional hurts but they did provide calm shelter.

What children of a BPD need is a sense of normalcy. They live in a funhouse, where what they see shifts and warps as they look on it. They're highly emotionally attuned but that hair-trigger is their defense mechanism against what might happen next. A huge gift, therefore, would be a normal day, spent doing normal things, without the fear that there will be tears and a beating at any moment.

You may find that they tell tall tales, or if they're a little older, are unrepentant liars. Show them that telling the truth has no negative consequences. A child of a BPD has learned that telling the right lie is far better than the risk of even a slightly hurtful truth. Show them how adults should and can behave.

You may also find that they are distrustful and suspicious. So too would you be if you'd learned that your emotions are not to be trusted, and "love" means punishment. What they need most of all is validation - that what they feel is true and honest. But it may time some time to earn their trust. If they have any left, it's been burned or buried deeply.

Still, I would say, find a way to connect. Phone calls would be best. You don't want to be caught saying something in a text or email that can later be read by prying eyes.

But in all of this, be careful. A BPD is highly, brilliantly attuned to changes in her or his environment. My mother too worked tirelessly to isolate my sister and I. Your efforts to befriend the children will cause stress but courage! Your love and support will be a lifeline. Literally.

And one final note - a BPD may use coercion to try to keep you away from her children. Nothing outraged my mother so much as seeing my grandmother treat us well or give us presents. She would punish us and take our presents while making us swear that we didn't deserve gifts but we did deserve to be beaten for receiving them. Eventually, I fought back and found to my amazement that my towering, raging monster of a mother was in actuality a coward.

I doubt I'd have had the strength without those countless, calm weekends spent at my grandparents' house. Even without a single word acknowledging our pain, they helped. You might be able to do more.

Suppose you had two verbally

Suppose you had two verbally abusive parents, and years later, they realize the enormity of their mistake. What are they to do? There's no way they can fix what they did--that's now on the adult children to deal with--and an apology is insultingly insufficient.

A true apology leads to transformative change.

A simple "I'm sorry," would, I agree, be insufficient.

A full apology by contrast gives detailed accounting of the mistakes, clarifies that the person has genuine insight as well as deeply felt regret, and concludes with what the person will do differently in the future. Launching together a new era of positivity would be the ultimate goal, with the wounds healed and years ahead of truly loving interactions....

The receiver has also a part in this process. The receiver of an apology needs to be able to open his/her vulnerability and heart to forgiveness. Forgiveness though feels much better than holding on to resentments, and is physically healthier as well....

Informative and compassionate post

I enjoyed this post. As a therapist who sees couples, some of whom are BPD parents, the clear and well-developed presentation was helpful and grounding. Thank you, Susan.
Marty Babits
fellow PT Blogger

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.


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