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Possible Effects of Parental Violence on Kids

Verbal or physical violence by parents can both take a hurtful toll on children.

Key points

  • Verbal violence is speech intended to injure feelings and damage self-esteem.
  • Physical violence is intended to inflict physical and emotional pain and assert dominance.
  • The cost of violence is the loss of child trust in a primary relationship that now feels unloving, frightening, and unsafe.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph. D.

A reader asked: “Why are you against parents using violence on kids?”

Explaining how, as an observational psychologist and not a research one, I could only offer personal opinions; here is some of my reply.

By “violence” I mean any parental act of aggression committed with the hostile intent of inflicting hurt on the child. Start by differentiating verbal and physical violence

Verbal Violence

The old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,” is untrue. In counseling with folks, I’ve heard endless examples of the hurt that harsh words can do. Name-calling, threatening, insulting, yelling, ridicule, embarrassment, humiliation, criticism, and belittling can all be acts of verbal violence that inflict a lot of psychological harm. "I know I'm worthless because my parents often told me so."

Most of the damage in caring relationships is inflicted through speech. Spoken violence to their teenager might be: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” “You’re so lazy!” “You can’t do anything right!” “What a dumb thing to do!” “You’ll never learn!” “You’re nothing but a failure!” “What a loser!” Such verbal violence from people as powerful as parents can injure a child’s sense of themselves: “I'll never measure up!"

Don't demean and put the young person down. Don't declare disappointment for not meeting parental expectations. And don't ever express despair, treating the young person as though they are hopeless.

Physical Violence

Physical violence takes advantage of the parent’s larger size and family standing to use forcefulness to intimidate or dominate the child. It can be in the form of grabbing, squeezing, shaking, slapping, popping, shoving, hitting, belting, or beating. Sometimes justified as punishment or indulged in to feel powerful or as an outlet for angry feelings, physical violence by parents can inflict specific and symbolic harm.

Specifically, it can cause emotional and physical pain: "When I think about what happened, it still hurts." Symbolically, it can show how parental might is right: "And don't you forget it!"

Costs of Violence

So, I believe that parental violence can result in child victimization, and it can be costly in many ways.

For the child victim, parental violence can feel unsafe, unloving, frightening, and destructive. It can inflict injury, create danger, foster distrust, cause suffering, alienate affections, and can be long remembered. Add all these and other effects up, and the sum can be a badly damaged relationship.

Abuse of Parental Power

Parenting is always partly about the management of superior power with children, and I believe resorting to violence is an abuse of that authority. At the very least, trust in the safety of parents is lessened.

As for parents, blaming the victim is not the answer: “You drove me to it!” or “You made me that angry!” Such excuses just misplace adult responsibility. In desperation, in frustration, in grievance, they abandoned working out a problem with the child for acting out against the child.

Parents who believe in corrective violence (as I do not), like spanking for misdeeds, need to be sure that in doing so they do not cross the line where child safety is lost and lasting injury is given. As a precaution: Never spank in anger because now you are “thinking” with your feelings, not using your judgment, and are more at risk of making an excessive response. And now anger becomes dangerous, seen as a warning of possible violence. "When my parent gets angry, I know to watch out."

Later Consequences

Finally, there is this: Most of what parents have to give their child is, through instruction and example and interaction, who and how they are. In response to parental violence, the child victim can learn a formative lesson for later caring relationships.

When such patterning occurs, the grown child victim may become violent in an adult relationship, get with a violent partner, or become violent with children, repeating responses learned long ago.

For example, identifying with violence, the adult might explain: “I hit my partner like my parent hit me.” Adjusting to violence, the adult might explain: “I appease my violent partner like I did my violent parent.” With children, the adult might explain: "I treat my kids no differently than my parents did me."

How the child is seen and treated by parents can influence how the child, grown older, sees and treats themselves and significant others. Despite resolve to the contrary, people often don't just get what they want in later relationships; they can also get what is (and feels) familiar, painful history managing to repeat itself.

My Bias

So, for all these reasons, I am opposed to parental violence. My advice is that should you ever find yourself inclined to be violent with your child, stop action and take a break to figure out (maybe get help) how to find a nonviolent other way. And if an act of parental violence has occurred, get some reconciliation counseling for you and your child together to work through the damages done, and commit to never doing it again.

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