"What you have to understand is that my mother never raised her voice and when I confronted her about her treatment of me—her put-downs and criticisms, how she said I was the problem because I was too sensitive—that was the first thing she said: ‘How can you accuse me of that when I never raised my voice, not once, to you or anyone else?’ Well, abuse can be very quiet." — Kaitlyn, 45
"I felt invisible in my childhood. My mother would ask me what I wanted to eat and then serve me something else. She’d ask if I were hungry and if I said I wasn’t, she'd go ahead and make me something and then look hurt or angry if I didn’t eat it. She did this constantly and it involved literally every choice. If I wanted red sneakers, she’d buy blue ones. I knew exactly how little I mattered to her. As an adult, I lack confidence in my own tastes and judgment." — Alice, 50
It’s not just that the culture assesses verbal abuse as less damaging than the physical kind—which it is not—but that when most people think about verbal abuse, they tend to summon up images of someone screaming and yelling. They imagine that the decibels are loud and the pitch is fevered, and that the person shouting is out of control, shaking with rage or intent. But while that’s true in some households, it isn’t always. In fact, counterintuitively enough, some of the worst kinds of verbal abuse are quiet; silence in answer to a question asked or a comment made can pack a mightier wallop than a loud rant. Silence effectively ridicules and shames.
The child subjected to quiet abuse often experiences more emotional confusion than one who’s being yelled at or insulted, precisely because the absence of rage sends mixed signals and the motivation behind willful silence or a refusal to answer is impossible for a child to read. There’s a special kind of hurt in being treated as though you’re invisible, or that you are so unimportant in the scheme of things that you’re not even worth answering. Is there anything more chilling and hurtful than seeing your mother act as though she can’t see you, her face calm?
Everything science has learned about the effects of verbal abuse applies to the quiet variety, too, chief among these being:
There are specific kinds of “quiet” verbal abuse, each of which affects a child differently. Of course, the effects don’t end with childhood but carry over into adulthood in myriad ways. I’ve categorized them in a descriptive, rather than scientific, manner though research confirms all of these behaviors.
1. Disappearing Act: Being Ignored
Much of the information children have about the world and relationships comes to them second-hand. With a caring and attuned mother who responds to his or her cues, a child begins to fathom that he or she matters and is worthy of attention; these are the seeds that yield healthy self-esteem. The attentive mother communicates the message that “You’re fine just as you are,” giving the child the courage and confidence to explore the world. But the child with a mother who ignores her learns instead that her place in the world is precarious, even though she doesn’t know why.
Thanks to the work of Edward Tronick, his colleagues, and the “Still-Face” experiments conducted almost 40 years ago, we actually know how being ignored affects infants and toddlers. (At the time, it was widely believed that infants as young as four or five months didn’t actually interact with their mothers.) Tronick videotaped mothers interacting with infants who cooed, pointed, vocalized, and waved their arms in response to their mothers’ smiling faces, words, and gestures. (Keep in mind that using videotape in this way in 1978 was new and innovative.) Then Tronick had the mothers simply stop and present a still, expressionless face to their babies. Initially, the babies continued to vocalize and gesture but when the mothers’ faces continued to be emotionless, the babies looked away and then began to wail. The tapes show the infants literally collapsing in their chairs, overwhelmed by feeling.
Studies done with toddlers, capable of speech, showed precisely the same pattern when their mothers stopped interacting and presented the still face. They began by trying to re-engage their mothers—doing all the cute things that usually worked—but when those failed, they turned their backs on their mothers. Avoidance was preferable to feeling the pain of being ignored, excluded and loveless.
Of course, in the experiment, the mother’s smiling face returned and the babies recovered, though not quickly or completely. But served up on a daily basis, the effects of being ignored on a child’s development are complex and profound. The coping mechanisms he or she adapts—an anxious or avoidant attachment style—affect her long past childhood and into adulthood and, without therapy or some other earned attachment, for life.
2. Deadly Quiet: Stonewalling
From a child’s perspective, being stonewalled may seem very much like being ignored but it has different emotional consequences, especially as he or she matures; intense anger and frustration, directed at the person stonewalling him or her, may be par for the course. It’s not an accident that what experts call Demand/Withdraw (essentially ask/stonewall) is considered the most toxic pattern in relationships. Marital expert John Gottman considers it a reliable sign that the union of two people is doomed to fail. It’s hard enough to deal with a stonewalling intimate when you’re an adult—your partner’s refusal to answer inevitably ratchets up your own frustration and anger—but it’s absolutely devastating to a child who doesn’t have any way of defending him or herself.
The child’s lack of developed and effective defense mechanisms is precisely what researchers in Israel honed in on when they examined the long-term effects of childhood emotional abuse. They concluded that the damage done to individuals’ self-esteem had much to do with the inability to protect and defend themselves and to internalizing the thought that they weren’t good enough to warrant their parents’ attention when parents were uncaring or harshly controlling.
3. Wounding Quiet: Contempt and Derision
Shaming a child can be accomplished sotto voce or even with physical gestures like eye-rolling or laughing at him or her to convey contempt or making him or her the butt of jokes. This particular variety of bullying can become a team sport in some households, if siblings are asked to join the fray and make the child a scapegoat. Controlling parents or those who need to be the center of attention often use these techniques to maintain the dynamics of the household as they want them. Once again, damage can be done without a raised voice.
4. Bait and Switch: Gaslighting
This tool of manipulation is aimed at having the child doubt his or her perceptions. (The term derives from a play—and later a film—about a man who tries to convince a woman she’s losing her mind.) Gaslighting doesn’t require shouting or yelling; all it takes is a simple statement that something that actually happened didn’t. Given the imbalance of power in the parent-child relationship—and the fact that a young child accepts the adult as the last word and authority on most things until she gets old enough to begin questioning her mother’s judgment—gaslighting is relatively easy. It not only makes a child worry about being “crazy” but erodes her confidence in her own thoughts and feelings in a profound and lasting way. Again, keep in mind that children don’t have conscious defense mechanisms.
5. "For Your Own Good": Hypercriticality
In many households, both the loud and the quiet kinds of verbal abuse are rationalized by the need to correct perceived flaws in the child’s character or behavior. Hypercriticality—nitpicking and then magnifying every misstep or mistake—may be “justified” or “explained” by having to make sure the child “isn’t too full of himself,” “doesn’t let his successes go to his head,” “learns humility,” “knows who’s boss” and other self-serving statements that are just excuses for cruel adult behavior. Delivered in a quiet tone, this barrage of criticism makes a child believe she’s unworthy of attention and support because she’s worthless.
6. Utter Silence: The Absence of Praise, Support, and Love
The power of what isn’t said cannot be overstated because the void it leaves in a child’s psyche and heart is enormous. Children are hardwired to need all the things that the abusive parent neither voices nor demonstrates in order to thrive and develop normally. In truth, words that articulate why a child is worthy of love and attention are as essential as food, water, clothing, and shelter.
7. Quiet and Shadows: Normalizing the Abuse
It’s a sad truth that a child’s world is so small that he or she thinks that what goes on in it goes on everywhere. Most children attribute verbal abuse to their flaws and “badness"; as Rachel Goldsmith and Jennifer Freyd note, this attribution may actually be less scary than “the scarier prospect that the caregiver can’t be trusted and may help create an illusion of control.” Even as adults, those verbally abused in the quiet manner during childhood may rationalize or normalize their parents’ behaviors for many different reasons. Seeing the ways in which you’ve been wounded by those charged to love you is hard for women and men alike.
It’s not just that verbal abuse is under-reported, but it’s not written and talked about often enough, and its lasting effects are not understood by the public at large. Let’s buck the trend and start paying attention to the quiet kind, too.
This post was inspired by my readers on Facebook who asked me to address the effects of "the silent treatment."
Copyright © 2017 Peg Streep
Finzi-Dottan, Ricky and Toby Karu, “From Emotional Abuse in Childhood to Psychopathology in Adulthood,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (August 2006), vol. `94, no.8, 616-622.
Tronick, Edward Z."Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants," American Psychologist (1989) 44,112-126.
Weinberger, M. Katherine and E.Z. Tronick," Infant Affectivee Reactions to the Resumption of Maternal Interaction After the Still-Face," Child Development (1996), 67, 905-914.
Goldsmith, Rachel K. and Jennifer J. Freyd,” Effects of Emotional Abuse in Family and Work Environments: Awareness for Emotional Abuse,” Journal of Emotional Abuse (2005), vol. 5 (1), 95-123.