“Stick and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” may sound nice in theory, but it isn’t exactly true. While this idiom promotes inner strength when confronted with abuse, it’s not the common reality. Biting words hurt just as much as physical pain and last much longer; one cannot un-hear a mean comment. (1) It’s true, what’s often seen as kids toughening each other up can lead to general anxiety disorder and other permanent conditions.
Verbal Abuse Leaves Invisible Scars
Parents who would never consider physically striking a child often find themselves shouting harsh words at their children, whether out of frustration or as discipline. Research into the long-term effects of such treatment has found that far from positively correcting a child’s behavior. Instead, they work oppositely, fostering depression, aggression, and antisocial behavior. In fact, a study by the University of Pittsburgh found that participants demonstrated the same psychological effects after a two-year period as children who were subjected to physical abuse. (2)
“Significantly, the researchers also found that ‘parental warmth’—i.e., the degree of love, emotional support, and affection between parents and adolescents—did not lessen the effects of the verbal discipline. The sense that parents are yelling at the child ‘out of love’ or ‘for their own good’ does not mitigate the damage inflicted. Neither does the strength of the parent-child bond.”
“Verbal abuse may have a greater impact because the abused child has greater difficulty defending himself from the attack. Because children tend to identify with their parents, the verbal abuse by their parents becomes a way in which they then abuse themselves.” (3)
Abuse Begins at Home
A study published in the journal Western Criminology Review found that children who are subjected to verbal abuse by their parent(s) are more likely to fall victim to similar abuse and bullying by their peers. Children come to accept their parents’ views of them (as the child understands it through the lens of abuse), resulting in low self-esteem and passive acceptance of others’ similar disparagement. (4)