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Child Development

Five Reasons You Have to Stop Excusing Verbal Abuse

Understanding the contagion of bad behavior.

Key points

  • Verbal abuse intends to marginalize and manipulate, hurt and intimidate, shame and disparage.
  • Studies show that incivility is contagious — being around others who mistreat us makes us more likely to behave badly ourselves.
  • People subjected to verbal abuse, especially as children, suffer in myriad and complicated ways, including low self-esteem.
George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

The boy is about 8, and a man stands over him, presumably his father, yelling on the corner of 72nd Street and First Avenue. The man towers over him, tall enough to cast a shadow on the boy on this summer day. The boy’s knees are bloody, his cheeks tear-stained, and a shattered iPhone lies on the sidewalk. The man’s voice is loud enough to hear even as I cross the street: “How stupid are you? I told you not to run or fool around when you’re holding my phone. It’s not a toy. Dammit, you never listen. You always do what you want, not what you’re told. You’re a clumsy idiot.” The boy doesn’t answer, but his shoulders shake. A woman comes out of the bank behind them, sees the phone, and starts in: “Way to ruin a Saturday, Matt. Thanks a lot.” She picks up the pieces of the phone and turns to the man: “The Verizon store is right down the block. Let’s see what can be done.” The man puts his arm around her, and they walk off, with the boy trailing behind them.

Necessary discipline? Understandable anger? Nope. Verbal abuse.

I suspect that a few of you will disagree since an iPhone is a pricey piece of equipment and probably one that the father relies upon for work as well. But listen up, will you? What’s not okay is what the father said. It’s abusive to turn criticism into a litany of character flaws, as he did, especially with a young child. Yes, it’s okay to hold children accountable but not to call them “an idiot” or other names that shame them. And it’s not okay to focus on your phone when your kid’s knees are bleeding.

The cultural stance toward verbal abuse

The truth is that many people still believe in the old “sticks and stones” thing, despite what research knows; of course, the stance that “they’re only words” is more like a permission slip for people to indulge in what is actually verbal abuse, but is given a pass because, in the scheme of things, it’s thought to be pretty benign (which it isn’t). Given that studies show incivility is on the rise in every part of American life — in the workplace, at school and college, in politics — it would appear that many people have difficulty discerning what, precisely, constitutes the line between emotive language and verbal abuse.

The short answer is intent. Verbal abuse intends to marginalize and manipulate, hurt and intimidate, shame and disparage. You become part of the problem if you hear someone dress another person down and make excuses for his or her behavior.

5 reasons you need to stop making excuses

1. The science is categorical.

Verbal abuse damages the developing brain of a child, literally causing changes to its structure. Children internalize the messages conveyed in the form of self-criticism; they don’t have the psychological maturity or developed defense mechanisms to understand that what’s being said about them isn’t necessarily true. Needless to say, if the person saying these things to you is a parent or anyone else in a position of authority, their impact is enormous.

As with adults, the neural circuitry for emotional and physical pain is one and the same.

2. You’re normalizing hurt (and abusive behavior).

People normalize abusive behavior for a number of reasons. Children whose emotional needs aren’t met in childhood and who have been the victim of verbal abuse in their family of origin often grow up to be adults who, having not yet come to terms with the dynamics of their original home, are inured to this kind of talk. Much to their detriment, they’re essentially tone-deaf, even though they hurt and are wounded, but they remain passive and accepting. Sometimes, because they still crave the abusive parent’s love and affection, they deny and excuse what’s being said, actively minimizing the impact. As Alice, 46, remarked:

“You know, I just didn’t get it. I just accepted it as a fact that this was how my mother was and she couldn’t help it. Until she lit into my 10-year-old daughter and then the lights went on: No, that was not okay.”

Alas, the same tone-deafness accompanies them elsewhere into other relationships with verbally abusive people, as Susan, 50, attested:

“My first husband mocked me mercilessly whenever we disagreed, or just told me to shut my mouth. He belittled my intelligence and everything I said. When I objected, he said I was too sensitive, echoing what my mother always said. A therapist saved me, pointing out that love doesn’t include mockery or humiliation. It was a revelation.”

Because verbal abuse is usually excused by the abuser — explained away as “discipline” or a “necessary corrective,” especially when visited upon a child or recast as a “joke” which the adult recipient didn’t get — people sometimes feel hesitant and unsure when it comes to labeling behavior as abusive. Blame-shifting by the abusive person — saying that the butt of the comment is too sensitive or thin-skinned — is pretty typical too and, once again, may make a person unsure that a line has been crossed. The truth? It has.

Be clear that what someone may label “complete, no-holds-barred honesty” may be just an excuse for verbally horse-whipping someone. Honesty doesn’t maim. Don’t be fooled by spin.

3. Abuse doesn’t always require words.

That’s right. Stonewalling someone — refusing to answer a question or going silent in the midst of an important discussion — is nothing but an abusive power play, as are derisive or mocking physical responses like rolling your eyes or laughing at someone. Recognize these as the tactics of a manipulator, meant to make someone feel small.

4. By excusing, you marginalize people’s pain and experiences.

Because many people believe that only physical abuse does real damage, they may downplay emotional and verbal abuse in comparison. Sometimes, they actually believe their comments will be helpful, saying things like, “At least you weren’t hit by him/her,” or “It couldn’t have been that bad because you turned out great.” These kinds of comments — no matter what the intention — are very difficult to deal with if you’ve been on the receiving end of verbal abuse. And please, even if you actually believe it yourself, don’t tell the person that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” People subjected to verbal abuse, especially as children, suffer in myriad and complicated ways, including low self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, impaired ability to manage emotions, and more. Recovering takes time.

5. You make it easier to excuse your own behavior.

Not all of us are intentionally abusive or manipulative but, from time to time, each of us loses it and says something inappropriate, mean-spirited, derogatory, or hurtful. Humans are by nature an imperfect lot. Studies show that incivility is contagious — being around others who mistreat us makes us more likely to behave badly ourselves — so it’s important that we take an honest inventory of how we use language when we’re stressed and angry, both for our own sake and the sake of our households and communities. Instead of making excuses, an apology is in order.

Verbal abuse is never okay. Keep it simple: The word is never.

Copyright © 2017 by Peg Streep


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.

Rosen, Christopher C, Joel Koopman, Allison S. Gabriel, and Russell E, Johnson, “Who Strikes Back? A Daily Investigation of When and Why Incivility Begets Incivility,” Journal of Applied Psychology (2016), 101. 10.1037/apl0000140.

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