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Why Verbal Abuse Can Do So Much Damage

"Tough love" and "discipline" are often just rationales for maltreatment.

Source: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Of all the adages, there’s none I dislike more than this one: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never harm me.”

I’ll readily admit that I’m not an embroidered-with-a-proverb tea cozy gal nor am I given to fridge magnets with faux positive thoughts, but this one really galls me because 1) it couldn’t be less true and 2) many people actually believe it. This saying reinforces the cultural thought that words are just words and that verbal abuse is nothing more than a rather benign or very distant cousin of physical abuse. Again, that is simply not true.

But for many, physical abuse remains the gold standard against which verbal abuse is measured; culturally, it comes up short, which is a big mistake.

In fact, there is research suggesting that, in childhood, verbal abuse can quite literally change the developing structure of the brain. We also know from numerous psychological studies that children internalize the messages communicated by verbal abuse—that they are stupid, inadequate, or inferior; that they’re not worth talking to or listening to; that they’re too unappealing to be likeable or lovable—and, since the words are being delivered by an all-knowing parent or an adult, they become the basis for the child’s belief that these are foundational “truths” about her or himself. Without intervention—working with a therapist or someone else who is able to counter these beliefs about the core self—the child carries these supposed truths into adolescence, young adulthood, and even late adulthood. Verbally abused children often have poor adult mental health.

Identifying verbal abuse

In addition to the sticks-and-stones thing, there’s also confusion about what constitutes verbal abuse because everyone loses it now and again, right? In the heat of the moment, who among us can claim to never have hurled an insult or tried to demean someone else? But there are meaningful differences between verbal abuse and losing-it-in-the-moment.

Drawn from interviews and research for my forthcoming book, here’s what distinguishes verbal abuse:

  • Verbal abuse takes place in the context of a relationship and the damage done rises in direct proportion to the importance of the relationship. It may be annoying to have a stranger say something dismissive or insulting, but it’s not going to do permanent damage. The abusers we depend on, need, or even love do lasting damage.
  • Verbal abuse thrives in a relationship with an imbalance of power. That’s built into the parent/child or teacher/student relationship but it also applies to adult-on-adult relationships in which one person has power over the other. That could be economic or emotional power, or a combination of the two. Abusing someone verbally is a way of maintaining power and control.
  • Verbal abuse is motivated and consistent, and its intent is to marginalize the other person, solidifying the abuser’s control. It isn’t a one-off, in-the-moment thing.
  • Verbal abuse is often normalized or excused by the person being attacked because the abuser is emotionally important to him or her and, in the case of children, he or she doesn’t know what normal behavior is supposed to look like. That may be aided and abetted by the parent’s own rationalizations (“I’m only trying to toughen you up because life is hard” or “I don’t want you to think you’re important because you’ll be too full of yourself"); blame-shifting, which is another form of verbal abuse (“I wouldn’t yell at you if you acted better to begin with” or “I don’t like yelling at you but you’re making me do it”); or insistence that it’s for the child’s own good and improvement (“It’s called tough love because you need to pay attention to achieve” or “If I didn’t push you, you’d never get anything right”). Sometimes, the emotional confusion is intensified when the other parent undercuts the impact of verbal abuse by saying that the child is too sensitive or that he or she should just accept the fact that the parent “doesn’t really mean it” or that it’s “just the way he or she is."
  • There are other adults with power over children who can weaponize words, including teachers, mentors, and, as we’ll see, coaches.

The case of the gymnastics coach: What it tells us about verbal abuse and the cultural take

In April of 2020, Maggie Haney was formally suspended from coaching gymnastics for eight years after USA Gymnastics conducted hearings on her behavior. This case is especially important because it highlights the confusion children experience in the wake of verbal abuse and reveals the cultural confusion about defining the damage verbal abuse inflicts. It’s worth noting that Haney and those she coached were at the very top level of the sport; we are talking Olympics here.

The whistleblower was the mother of an Olympian named Laurie Herandez who basically hounded the organization for four years after her then-15-year-old daughter described physical abuse she’d witnessed and verbal abuse she’d experienced.

In an interview with The New York Times, Hernandez’s recollections echo those of the men and women who answered my questions for my new book and who weren’t Olympic medalists and experienced verbal abuse in domestic settings. When she complained to her coach of her maltreatment, she was reportedly told she was taking things too personally and, predictably, Hernandez would back down and eventually apologize. Haney had been her coach since she was 5—putting her in a position of power very akin to that of a parent—and the coaching was by definition unsupervised; parents were not allowed in the gym. Hernandez went on to say that “I thought I deserved it all…. The toughest part about it was there were no bruises or marks to show that it was real. It was all just so twisted that I thought it couldn’t be real.” Again, these thoughts are echoed by most of the hundreds of people I interviewed; there’s enormous cultural pressure on the victim to downplay verbal abuse. They’re only words, right?

Not altogether surprisingly, since physical abuse doesn’t raise the same kind of confusion, it was Laurie’s talking to another girl about witnessing Haney pull a gymnast by the hair, and having her mother overhear the conversation, that finally toppled the house of cards in 2016. Her mother, Wanda Hernandez, not only fired Haney immediately but registered a complaint with USA Gymnastics. It took four years for them to take action against Haney. [Update: On December 10, 2020, The New York Times reported that Haney's suspension had been reduced from eight years to five by the arbitrator and that the testimony of four witnesses had been disqualified. Haney's attorney is quoted as saying they are weighing their legal options.]

Two other gymnasts have filed legal complaints against Haney and others; since the complaints demand a jury trial, it won’t surprise you that physical abuse is up front and center in both, even though emotional/verbal abuse is included. I suspect the attorney is well aware of the cultural bias.

Recognizing the abuser’s playbook

Last week, Maggie Haney, who’d maintained her silence since her suspension, agreed to an interview with The New York Times; she intends to appeal her suspension. What she had to say echoes the rationalizations and denials my own mother and other parents used to “justify” their verbally abusive behaviors; over the course of my research, I’ve discovered some broad patterns:

  • The yelling and demeaning came out of “caring.” This is a direct quotation from Haney in The New York Times: “I think my mistakes were that I cared too much, and I wanted them to be too perfect every day, when maybe that’s not possible.” As someone trained in English literature, not psychology, I’d draw your attention to that “maybe.” You screamed, yelled, demeaned, and shamed children so that they’d attain perfection in their sport, and “maybe that’s not possible?” She hardly sounds convinced.
  • She attributes the charges to a cultural shift, not to her behaviors. Another direct quotation: “Maybe what used to be OK is not OK anymore, and maybe it shouldn’t be. I think maybe the culture has shifted.” More “maybes” in this one and, actually, shaming, body shaming, ridiculing, and other forms of verbal aggression have never been okay. Ditto hair pulling and forcing gymnasts to practice when injured.
  • She points to her defenders and says she’s being scapegoated. Ah, the old blame-shift—another form of verbal abuse—being used as a defense. She points to the fact that the mothers of two of the gymnasts suing her never complained about her behaviors, even though they were sometimes in the gym. What she doesn’t mention is how, when Laurie Herandez did complain to her mother and Mom called, she reportedly shamed Laurie for “telling” and “punished” all the gymnasts with extra exercises. A parent is quoted as defending her—one who is identified as managing his five children by “screaming, not codding”—saying, “I don’t think it’s fair to say that Maggie is an abuser. It depends on how much any child or any person can tolerate.” I have added those italics so you can focus on the sentence. Should abuse be defined by the individual's ability to withstand emotional pain?

Verbal abuse is abuse. Period. End of story. Disguises are just a feint.

Copyright © 2020 by Peg Streep

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"Olympic Gymnast Recalls Emotional Abuse ‘So Twisted That I Thought It Couldn’t Be Real’ "by Juliet Macur.

"A Gymnastics Coach Accused of Emotional Abuse Speaks Out: 'I Cared Too Much.'" by Juliet Macur.

"Suspension Reduced for Coach Accused of Emotional and Physical Abuse" by Juliet Macur.