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

Have you been a silent bystander? Would you speak up for the child?

Posted Mar 21, 2014

Unconditional love refers to a stance of caring and positive bonding that characterizes relationships that have what therapists refer to as a secure attachment. Parents who love their children in this way correct a child's mistaken behaviors instead of rejecting the child. The message they give is, "I don't like what you did, and I still love you."  

Spouses with positive relationships do the same, raising concerns about behaviors and still appreciating the person they love.

What happens, though, if a parent or a spouse (or a friend, relative, or boss) reacts with unconditional dislike? For spouses, this attitude can become a cause for divorce. Children whose parents convey "I don't like you," however, have no divorce option. These children are stuck with parents whose attitude conveys that they are unlovable. And unfortunately, the psychological damage from emotional/verbal abuse can be lifelong.  

The problem of parents who verbally abuse their children by yelling at them, calling them hurtful names, and turning them against themselves is related to the topic of a recent Wall Street Journal article, "States Tackling Child Abuse." The article highlighted child maltreatment in the form of physical abuse, and the need for stronger responses from state protective services.

But what is done for children whose parents intermittently or consistently denigrate and rage verbally at their children, committing emotional abuse? State protective services are empowered to mobilize when they see visible marks of physical abuse on children's bodies. When the abuse damages a child's mental state, however, eroding self-esteem and fostering hatred and fear, protective services generally have no jurisdiction. 

The goals of this article, then, are both to offer suggestions and to highlight a serious gap in our protective services for children of verbally abusive parents.  

I recently received the following note about a parent who is raising her children with unconditional hostility. The situation the writer described prompted me to write this blog post:

Dear Dr. Heitler, 

I was reading your information about BPD on the Psychology Today website and I am hoping you can help. 

My 32-year-old sister has BPD and rages everyday. It is really, really bad and continues to get worse over the years. I live in another town and can get away from her rage, but her daughters, who are 4 and 10, can't.  

My sister is not married right now. She's been divorced four times. The children both have different fathers. 

It is a very negative environment for the girls. My sister manipulates and uses them, and verbally, mentally, and emotionally abuses them. She is now alienating my older niece from friends, neighbors, and from the rest of our family, turning her into an insecure recluse who has no one.

What can I do? Surely there is a law in place that can commit her or something? Please help. My mother, who lives near her, gets the brunt of it all. It pains me terribly to see my mother suffering and my innocent nieces being harmed so badly by their mom.

Here are some thoughts on possible responses:

1. Reach out to a verbally abused child to initiate kindly interactions.  

A little bit of kindness can go a long way.  

I recall reading a study years ago that found that when children of abusive parents have even one adult with whom they can experience a normal positive relationship, that attachment can offer a profound counter-weight to all the abuse. An aunt or uncle, a neighbor, or a teacher who reaches out even intermittently can provide a saving grace.

2. Explain the reality about the sources of verbal abuse.

Explain to the child that the verbal abuse that Mom or Dad rains down when they are angry is an inaccurate description of the child. Explain that when people get mad, they say things they don't really mean and that are untrue. Explain also that the verbal abuse is not the fault of the child. 

Children depend on "mirroring"—that is, feedback from others—to develop a self-image of who they are. Verbally abusive parents convey that the child is bad, stupid, and worse. Looking the child in the eyes and explaining that you see the child as a good child, and/or one who is actually smart, can make a huge difference to that child's self-image.

Children who receive verbal abuse tend to believe that they are receiving this berating because they have done something wrong. Disabuse them of this notion so that they understand that raging comes from the parent's emotional dysfunction, not because the child has been bad or has acted provocatively. Their parent's anger is not their fault.

Abusive parents get triggered by normal childhood actions. When an abusive parent's anger gun is cocked and ready to go off, even the mere presence of the targeted child can be enough to trigger it.

3. Ask someone with authority to intervene.

Alerting social services, a church leader, a trusted doctor, or school personnel can lead to helpful interventions from these institutional systems. 

If you do try to alert these people, do emphasize how damaging verbal abuse tends to be for children. It's important to be sure that they understand how critically important their intervention will be. 

4. Encourage the disturbed parent to get help.

Empathizing with how much pain the adult seems to be in may offer an opening for the parent to see that he or she might benefit from counseling help.  

Parents who abuse their children tend to be low in insight, and to run from any form of treatment that assumes that insight will be helpful. A better form of help, therefore, might be a non-verbal treatment that soothes the parent's hyper-reactive emotional functioning. A treatment method called "BodyTalk" is one option. Sometimes acupuncture or medication can have a calming impact.

5. Encourage the disturbed parent to get help for their child "so that the child behaves better and does fewer things that are upsetting to you."

Unfortunately, joining the parent in regarding the child as the cause of his or her anger is likely to prove more productive than trying to break through the parent's self-absorbed and blaming orientation to access feelings of empathy for the child. Better to meet the parent where s/he is than to put stumbling blocks on the path toward getting help.

Enabling the child to have access to a therapist can make a major difference in his or her ability to heal from the abuse, preventing long-term emotional scars. In addition the therapist, hopefully, will eventually talk with the parent as well, preventing further damaging abuse.

Will these options for stopping verbal abuse of children prove sufficient?

Probably not. These solutions all have the potential to be helpful—although they can also backfire, leading to increases in the abuse. Even when they work relatively positively, however, they are likely to prove insufficient to meet the gravity of the situation.  

The dilemma of what to do when parents, whose job it is to nurture their offspring, poison their children with harmful verbal abuse is one that we as a society have yet to fully face and conquer. I myself have been working on treatments for BPD. Please see the article I've recently posted on the experience from within of borderline personality sufferers. It is the first in a series of articles that will culminate with an explanation of the treatments that I and the therapists in my office have been exploring.

Meanwhile, anything and everything you personally can do to provide help for children whose parents are verbally or emotionally abusive could make a difference.

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Additional Resources

For a resource to help children living with a raging parent, see the book An Umbrella for Alex.

For somewhat older kids, see this resource.

Note also the work of PDAN, the Personality Disorder Awareness Network, including their lists of helpful reading materials for children and for adults.