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Child Development

The Enduring Pain of Childhood Verbal Abuse

Words uttered by parents damage in ways more literal than not.

Key points

  • Both adults and kids respond more deeply and quickly to criticism than to praise, remembering a deflating or wounding remark with more exactness.
  • It's impossible for a parent who verbally abuses their child to ameliorate the effect of the abuse by demonstrating affection later.
  • Internalization of verbally abusive messages from childhood can lead one to develop a self-critical inner voice as well as low self-esteem.

"I didn’t know that the way my mother talked to me wasn’t the way other mothers talked to their daughters. I was an only child, and her constant criticism and putting me down made me feel terrible about myself, and it made me double my efforts to please her. More than anything, I wanted my mother to be happy with me. I was probably 30 before I realized there was nothing normal about how she talked to me. Not that the recognition helped because I still wanted her to be happy with me. At 50, I’m still trying to recover." — Aileen

The impact of verbal aggression and abuse tends to be discounted and marginalized in our culture; there seems to be an unspoken agreement that such abuse is “only words,” as people cite the children's rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.”

But science couldn’t be more categorical in its disagreement, especially when it comes to children, their developing brains, and the lasting effects of verbal abuse.

What Science Knows

"I knew that hitting was bad. As for verbal abuse, I never thought it was normal or abnormal per se—it didn’t even register that what was going on was abusive. I think my survival mechanism was repressing, being oblivious on purpose. I just knew that I was never allowed to be angry. I knew something was wrong, but I never thought to talk about it with a teacher. I read a lot of books with people who were heroes because I wanted to be like them." — Joelle, 39

First and foremost, if science knows anything, it’s that “bad is stronger than good,” as Roy Baumeister and his colleagues noted in the title of their seminal article. Humans are hardwired to pay more attention to potentially dangerous or negative possibilities. The evolutionary reasons for this are pretty clear—we store such information in a part of the brain that makes it much more accessible. Registering potentially dangerous threats and keeping them alive and well in memory was key to the survival of early humans, and our contemporary brains are no different. That applies to words as well: We respond more deeply and quickly to criticism than to praise, for example, and remember the deflating or wounding remark with more exactness than the compliment. This applies to children as well as adults.

From this point of view, it’s not surprising—especially given that we process negative and positive events through two different systems—that the positive doesn't offset the negative. Words are still damaging when you have one loving parent who uses his or her words with care and one who is verbally aggressive and abusive. Researcher Ann Polcari and her team proved this in a study of whether affectionate behavior by one parent could somehow mitigate or buffer a child from the damage inflicted by a verbally aggressive parent. Even more salient is the finding that if the parent who is verbally abusive later demonstrates affectionate behavior, the effect of the abuse isn’t ameliorated. Bad is stronger than good.

These findings counter the way we prefer to think about the negative things in life. We like the notion of the good balancing out the bad, so it comes as a shock to most of us that there’s no scientific basis for that optimistic assumption. In fact, many studies—including those of John Gottman on positive and negative exchanges between spouses—put the ratio at 5:1, meaning it takes five good things or exchanges to begin to lessen the impact of one bad one. That doesn’t include blotting out the memory of the negative event, by the way; those memories are tenacious.

A study of some 2,000 adults in their sixties found that when it came to telling their life stories, they recalled painful events quite differently—even when there’s been a long interval of time since they occurred—with the exception of childhood trauma. The researchers concluded that older adults perceived positive events as central to their lives largely because of cultural norms, but that negative events were perceived as central or a turning point because of the related coping skills and emotional distress.

Verbal Abuse Changes the Developing Brain

Source: lightwavemedia/Shutterstock

The work of Martin A. Teicher and his colleagues showed that the human brain is highly adaptable. The evolutionary goal is for children to adapt to whatever environment they are in so that they are not in a constant state of stress. Born into a safe, attentive, and attuned environment, the child’s brain develops normally; when born into one which is either unsupportive or hostile, the brain does not. Studies show that various parts of the brain are affected by a hostile situation, among them the corpus callosum (the conduit for transferring motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the brain’s two hemispheres); the hippocampus (part of the limbic system that regulates emotion); and the frontal cortex (controls thought and decision making). This information is genuinely terrifying, but it also appears to be beyond dispute.

A study by Akemi Tomado and others points to literal structural change in the gray matter of the brain in the presence of verbal abuse without proving causation. Thanks to MRI imaging, the question of whether verbal abuse changes how the brain functions is no longer in question: We know that abuse leaves behind a specific legacy.

The Close Connection Between Physical and Emotional Pain

It’s clear that humans have long intuited that there's a connection between physical and emotional pain; it’s reflected in our language. We describe our hearts as being broken, we say we are emotionally bruised or cut to the quick. Once again, science shows that this connection is more literal than metaphorical.

Studies demonstrate that the circuitry for both physical and emotional pain is one and the same. An experiment by Naomi L. Eisenberger showed that social rejection activated the same neural circuitry as physical pain. In a more expansive way, Ethan Kross and his colleagues demonstrated the complexity of this connection in an experiment that used MRI scanning to see what areas of the brain lit up when individuals who’d recently experienced being left by a lover viewed a photograph of their ex, and when a noxious amount of heat was applied to the forearm. Guess what? The same neural circuitry was involved. Social rejection hurts—literally. And verbal abuse is social rejection expressed in language.

The Psychological Impact of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse and gaslighting started early in one young woman's life but really escalated as she became more independent. This is how she thinks it shaped her:

"I’m very critical of myself and overly sensitive. I have a very poor, almost dysmorphic self-image even though I’ve accomplished a great deal. I over-analyze other people’s intentions in anticipation of rejection. I’m not overly social and can be very negative. I wonder if I seek out depressed feelings—I like melancholy songs or stories. One of my greatest fears and motivators is not being enough for someone I care about."

In textbook terms, this woman suffers from rejection sensitivity and low self-esteem, has an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment, and is prone to rumination and perhaps depression—and all of this co-exists with high achievement in the world. She’s hardly alone and demonstrates the lasting impact of verbal abuse in childhood.

If you want to get a sense of how abuse affects a person’s life, self-image, and thought processes in the long term, imagine skipping a stone over water and then watching the ripple effect. There’s the direct effect of the verbal abuse in the moment, which inflicts deep emotional pain. In most cases, this is an established pattern of repetitive behavior, so in addition to the cycle of pain, the child also develops coping mechanisms, many of them maladaptive.

A verbally abused child may arm herself against the pain, which only lessens her already impaired ability to manage negative emotions and self-soothe. Babies learn to self-regulate and comfort themselves through attuned parenting, but the verbally abusive parent is completely unattuned. A child under the care of an abusive parent may be constantly flooded with feelings that further limit the growth of his or her emotional intelligence, a skill set built on identifying emotions and processing them. In the wake of continued verbal aggression, it’s hard for a child to sort out whether he or she is feeling afraid, ashamed, hurt, or angry.

Finally, the internalization of the messages conveyed—those diminishing, hypercritical, and shaming words and phrases—changes one's personality, self-esteem, and behavior. “Self-criticism,” the common term for this, sounds far more benign than it actually is because it can verge dangerously into self-hatred and be hobbling in the extreme. This is the habit of mind that ascribes every glitch, setback, or failure to ingrained flaws in character, leading someone to think, “I failed because I’m too stupid and worthless to do anything else," or, “No wonder she left. Who could ever truly love me?”

Verbal Abuse and Family Dynamics

Verbal abuse and aggression don’t take place in a vacuum—it poisons the family well and the springs that feed it. Adults who experienced verbal abuse in childhood often tell stories about siblings who joined in and bullied or scapegoated them. They describe fathers who stood by and said nothing as their mothers repeatedly marginalized and dismissed them.

Tom, who is 66, reports that it took him a while to realize that all households were not like his. He grew up with parents who, as he calls them, were “street saints”—well-behaved in the outside world and devils at home. That, by the way, is very common because verbal abuse is usually a family secret and, if discovered, is justified by a child’s needing “discipline” or “correction.” Tom’s father was overtly abusive and violent, and his older brother bullied him physically and emotionally. But it was his mother who was in some ways the hardest to deal with because her aggression was more covert:

"How my father behaved certainly left me sensitive to violence. What my brother did was worse in that it made me feel helpless in the face of not just violence, but of arrogant dismissal, of being aggressively demeaned when I didn’t feel in an empowered position. In short, it made me fearful and timid. Being much more subtle—not a hint of physical violence, never a raised voice of profanity, but always indignant and insistent—what my mother did effectively left me with a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment, which I still feel."

A parent who relishes control often uses verbal abuse against one child as a way of manipulating the other children in the household, who may scapegoat or bully the singled-out child to protect themselves from verbal aggression, make themselves feel good, or curry favor with the parents. This can happen with a mother, father, or both.

When verbal abuse is combined with gaslighting—when something is said and then denied by the parent, forcing the child to consider whether she has a grip on reality or might be as “crazy” as the parent says—the impact is extremely toxic and undermining.

Recovering From Childhood Verbal Abuse in Adulthood

"Recovery is a process. I would say that I have mostly good days now when I realize that it’s my mother’s voice giving me the negative voices in my head and is not the reality of the situation. The recovery has been a long process. I did behavioral therapy for a few years and each session helped me realize the depth of the abuse. I really did believe that every family was like mine—until I had an awakening at the age of 39 when I realized I had to get to the root of my stress. I didn’t like to talk about my mom in therapy because I didn’t want to spend a cent on her, but once I did, the floodgates opened and the counselor helped me realize I had an abusive mother."

The first step in recovering from verbal abuse, as this testimony from a 46-year-old woman makes clear, is recognizing that it took place. This is often difficult for many reasons, including “normalizing” the household; still wanting a connection to the parent or parents; buying into the cultural notion that verbal abuse isn’t really corrosive; and more. The good news is that with help and support, that internalized tape loop can be shut off and replaced with not just a more affirming message, but—at long last—one which finally reflects who you are.

Innumerable thanks to the readers who informed my thinking by sharing their stories and thoughts on my Facebook page.

Copyright© 2016 Peg Streep


Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.

Polcari, Ann, Karen Rabi et al, “Parental Verbal Affection in Childhood Differentially Influence Psychiatric Symptoms and Wellbeing in Young Adulthood,”Child Abuse and Neglect (2014), 38 (1), 91-102.

Bersten, Dorthe, David C. Rubin, and Illene C. Siegler, “ Two Versions of Life:Emotionally Negative and Positive Events have Different Roles in the Organization of Life Story and Identity,” Emotion (2011), 11 (5), 1190-1201

Kairys, Steven W. M.D., Charles Johnson, M.D. and The Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, “The Psychological Maltreatment of Children—Technical Report,” Pediatrics (April 2002), vol.109, no.4.

Teicher, Martin P., Susan L. Anderson et al. “The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (2003), 27, 33-44.

Tomoda, Akemi, Yi-Shin Sheu, Keren Rab, Hanako Suzuk, Carryl P. Navalta, Ann Polcari, and Martin H. Teicher,” Exposure to parental verbal abuse is associated with increased gray matter volume in superior temporal gyrus,” NeuroImage (2011), 54, 5260-5266.

Eisenberger, Naomi. “The Pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain” (2012) Nature Reviews Neuroscience (May 2012), 13 (6), 421-434.

Kross, Ethan, Marc G. Berman et al. “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain” (2011) PNAS, vol, 108, no.5, 6270-6275.

Gray, Kurt and Daniel M. Wegner, “The Sting of Intentional Pain,” Psychological Science(2008), vol. 19, number 12, 1260-1262.

Sachs-Ericsson, Natalie, Edelyn Verona, Thomas Joiner and. Kristopher J. Preacher, “Parental verbal abuse and the mediating role of self-criticism in adult internalizing disorders,” Journal of Affective Disorders (2006) 93, 71-78.

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