“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)
The Physical Aspect of General Anxiety Disorder
The problem of general anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders isn’t simply psychological; the brain (like every other body part) continues to grow after birth. Your experiences shape the growth that takes place and influence cognition and perception. (6) The brains of children and adolescents exposed to regular abuse (of any kind, from any source) do not develop normally.
The superior temporal gyrus is a part of the brain responsible for auditory cognition, response, and language association and comprehension. It’s also involved in eye movement and the analysis of visual stimuli that include social interactions. (7) In young adults who had been subjected to parental verbal aggression as children, the fibers that connect the superior temporal gyrus to different sections of the brain is less robust than in people who hadn’t experienced such aggression. This suggests that the ability to analyze, interpret, and process language is altered as a result of verbal abuse. (8)
The inability for the two sides of the brain to communicate can lead to many potential forms of brain dysfunction, including social interaction. (9) When exposed to chronic stress, the body adapts over time. Verbal abuse and its resulting loss of optimal brain function can lead to a spectrum of internalizing and externalizing psychological disorders that include anxiety, depression, narcissism, anger/hostility, dissociation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (10)
Essentially emotional torture, children carry the deep-seated damage through life and it can often manifest in adulthood as the inability to process language, lack of trust, feelings of rejection, and pathological self-criticism. Children adapt to abuse by suppressing emotion and often juxtapose their own feelings of inadequacy into acts of bullying and victimization of others. (11)
What Qualifies as Verbal Abuse?
Children whose parents inflict personal, negative tirades upon them are more likely to accept such behavior from others, including peers, teachers, and other sources. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to peer victimization in the form of ridicule. (12)
Verbal abuse can take many forms, including:
- Excessive criticism
- Use of cuss words
- Offensive/inappropriate language
Children aren’t the only demographic that suffers.
Perceptions and adaptive skills begin in childhood and carry through to adulthood. Even middle-aged and older adults subjected to routine verbal abuse also succumb to anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of damaged mental health. (13)
Managing General Anxiety Disorder
There are ways to manage symptoms and re-wire your brain—it’s never too late.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to learn new things and record new memories. This includes changing the way we perceive ourselves and the world. (14) If you’ve experienced abuse of any kind, from any source, and at any time of your life, it is possible to heal from its injuries. Watch the video below for one woman’s recovery story.
Watch the video below for one woman’s recovery story.