Why Verbal Abuse Is So Painful

What every parent should know.

Posted May 10, 2018

Source: Sabphoto/Shutterstock

“The problem with verbal abuse is there is no evidence,” Marta shared. She had come for help with a long-standing depression.

“What do you mean lack of evidence?” I asked her.

“When people are physically or sexually abused, it’s concrete and real. But verbal abuse is amorphous. I feel like if I told someone I was verbally abused, they’d think I was just complaining about being yelled at,” Marta explained.

“It’s much more than that,” I validated.

“The problem is, no one can see my scars.” She knew intuitively that her depression, anxiety, and deep-seated insecurity were wounds that stemmed from the verbal abuse she endured.

“I wish I was beaten,” Marta shared on more than one occasion. “I’d feel more legitimate.”

Her statement was haunting and brought tears to my eyes.

Verbal abuse is so much more than getting scolded. Marta told me that there were many reasons her mother’s tirades were traumatizing:

  • The loud volume of her voice.
  • The shrill tone of her voice.
  • The dead look in her eyes.
  • The critical, disdainful, and contemptuous facial expression that made Marta feel hated.
  • The long duration — sometimes her mother yelled for hours.
  • The names and insults: You’re spoiled, disgusting, wretched, etc.
  • The unpredictability of that “flip of the switch” that turned her mother into someone else.
  • Perhaps worst of all, the abandonment.

Being frequently yelled at changes the mind, brain, and body in a multitude of ways, including increasing the activity of the amygdala (the emotional brain), increasing stress hormones in the bloodstream, increasing muscular tension, and more. Being frequently yelled at changes how we think and feel about ourselves, even after we become adults and leave home. That’s because the brain wires according to our experiences — we literally hear our parents’ voices yelling at us in our heads, even when they are not there. Marta had to work hard every day to push away the onslaught coming from inside her mind.

Attachment and infant-mother research confirms what we all intuitively know: Humans do better when they feel safe and consistently loved, which means, among other things, being treated with respect. What is news to many of us is that we are born with fully mature core emotions, like sadness, fear, and anger. When fear, for example, is repeatedly triggered by a harsh environment, such as one where there is lots of yelling, automatic physical and emotional reactions occur that cause traumatic stress to a child. The stress in their little brains and bodies increases from anything that feels attacking, including loud voices, angry voices, angry eyes, dismissive gestures, and more.

Children do better when they are calm. The calmer and more connected the caregiver is, the calmer and more secure their child will be, and the healthier it is for the child's brain and body. 

The following are some things we can remember to help young brains develop well and make our children feel safe and secure.

  • Know that children have very real emotional needs that require proper tending. In general, the more these needs are met, the easier it will be for the child to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges.
  • Learning about core emotions will help you teach your child to successfully manage emotions.
  • You can affect your child’s self-esteem by being kind, compassionate, and curious about their mind and world.
  • When a break in the relationship occurs, as often happens during conflicts, try to repair the emotional connection with your child as soon as possible.
  • You can help your child feel safe and secure by allowing them to separate from you and become their own person, welcoming them back with love and connection, even when you are angry or disappointed in their behaviors. You can calmly discuss your concerns and use these opportunities as teachable moments.

As a parent, it is not easy to control one’s temper or realize if we’ve crossed the line into verbal abuse. There is a slippery slope between being a strict disciplinarian and what will traumatize a young brain. A little awareness goes a long way: Being aware of one’s behavior, listening to our tone of voice and choice of words, and watching our body language all help keep us in check. Little children, who can act tough, defiant, or even indifferent to our actions, are still vulnerable to trauma. Our own childhood experiences — wonderful, horrible, and everything in between — need to be remembered and honored. And we can all strive to help our families evolve, and to pay forward more of the best, gentlest experiences we received as children rather than the painful ones. 


* Adapted from Circle of Security International. For parenting workshops and other resources, visit their website at https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/circle-of-security-parenting

Hendel, H. J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression. Random House: New York.