The Way We Speak to Our Children…

The Way We Speak to Our Children…

verbal abuseAubrey Wood & Kirstie Steel

Many of us would be appalled if we were in a grocery store and watched as a parent smacked the back of their child’s head for the offense of reaching for a box of cookies the parent had just denied.  But how many of us would feel the same level of horror if we saw that parent hiss at their child that he or she was being bad, “just like always?”  Though no physical harm came to the child, such belittling is abuse.  Abuse is defined as anything that is harmful, injurious, or offensive.   Verbal abuse can include swearing, threats, insults, bullying, and/or name calling.

The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is not nearly as true as we might want to believe.  Although, in the scenarios we are focusing on, there is not physical harm or danger associated with the words, they carry just as much negative power.  The wounds of a spoken word remain much longer than those of a physical touch.  They can remain with the victims for a long time, and can affect the way they view the world, and themselves. is a non-profit resource designed to help readers resolve a variety of “health challenges.”  One of the topics listed on the website is Child Abuse and Neglect. To help the reader obtain a basic knowledge of this topic, the article lists “Myths and facts about child abuse and neglect.”   The first of the five myths says: “It’s only abuse if it’s violent.”  The article argues this myth by stating: “Physical abuse is just one type of child abuse.  Neglect and emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and since they are more subtle, others are less likely to intervene.”

Benj Vardigan in his article “Verbal Abuse of Children” gives a list of the types of verbal abuse – some of them we might not even think of as being abusive:

  1. “Name-calling, belittling, swearing, and insulting.”  Whether these types of criticisms are indirect or intentional, direct or not, they are harmful.
  2. “Rejecting or threatening with abandonment.”  A parent’s love should be unconditional, and the child should know that it is.  They should never be threatened with the possibility, no matter how probable, of the love being withdrawn.
  3. “Threatening bodily harm” is another listed type of verbal abuse.  Even if the parent never intends to follow through with this threat, it can create a relationship of fear and distrust.  This fear and distrust are not momentary—the child will not “get over it” after the threat has diminished.  It will reappear in the child’s life, and will forever be a stain on the relationship.
  4. “Scapegoating or blaming.”  If children are constantly blamed for the things that go wrong, they will begin to truly believe that they are the root of the problem, and that they deserve any negative thing which happens to them.
  5. “Using sarcasm” is also included on the list.  While the person using such a tactic may think that they are letting out their frustrations or anger in a way that the child will not understand, that is not the case.  Children, though they may not fully understand the sarcasm, are perceptive enough to know that they are being demeaned and treated unkindly.
  6. “Berating your spouse.”  Children who see their parents verbally abusing one another are more likely to be anxious, depressed, and experience more interpersonal problems of their own.  Surprisingly, verbal aggression between parents is more traumatic to children than physical violence among parents.

The effects of verbal abuse are not just harmful in the moment, but can have longer-lasting effects, which can both linger and reappear later in life.  About 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse and/or neglect their own children.  About 80 percent of children who were abused, in any manner, when they reached the age of 21 were tested and met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder.

According to a study done by Florida State University researchers, “people who were verbally abused had 1.6 times as many symptoms of depression and anxiety as those who had not been verbally abused and were twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety disorder over their lifetime.” A child who is the victim of verbal abuse can also be susceptible to having a more negative self-image, become more prone to committing self-destructive acts (such as cutting), antisocial behavior, and delayed development.

Regardless of what our relationship may be with the family, states that to help those who are struggling with verbal abuse (on both the receiving and the administrating end), we can “Be a friend to a parent you know.”  Verbal abuse may likely come because the adult is feeling overwhelmed or stressed in their care for the child.  If the parents feel that they have a connection within the community, someone who they may depend and rely on, it could take some of the burden off their shoulders, and allow them to feel more at ease with their children, and better able to care for them.

Peggy O’Mara, editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine and author of the book Natural Family Living, has said “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.”  As parents, leaders, teachers, or any adult who has stewardship over a child, we carry much more power and influence than we might be aware of.  For a child who is verbally abused, they will begin to associate the bad things that happen in their lives with the “truth” in the voice of a trusted adult that drifts back to them, saying how “bad,” “stupid,” or “worthless” they are.

Children depend on us to lead them, teach them, and guide them.  We show them the world—they will see it in the color that we paint it.   The way they view themselves is largely a result of what we tell them they are.

Kirstie WoodAubrey WoodKirstie Steel and Aubrey Wood are both students at Brigham Young University-Idaho and are interested in Family and Child Advocacy.

  • Dissenting Opinion
    Posted at 11:48h, 21 May

    What a load of Dr. Spock-ish, politically correct malarkey.

    Certainly it’s possible to “verbally abuse” a child. However, giving a child “what for” is part of growing up and rearing children. People like you and the websites/organizations you endorse would have us all tiptoeing around our kids for fear we might commit some “abuse” that we don’t intend or even know we’re committing. Proof of that is that somehow you and those “experts” feel they need to point out some ethereal “abuse” that people don’t even realize they’re committing.

    Like many another politically correct fallacy the word “abuse” is being grossly overused today. Excessive over-the-top use of words like “abuse” causes them to lose their meaning, and that is exactly what you’re doing.

    Raising a child correctly and responsibly is a system of rewards and punishments to instill proper behavior. The key to applying rewards and punishments CORRECTLY and RESPONSIBLY lies in consistency, honesty and REAL love not some namby–pamby imitation that makes a parent feel good at the moment. Raising children is a long-term proposition and your feelings of the moment are irrelevant.

    Discipline is vital to both the child growing up and the adult the child will become. An indispensable component of discipline is punishment. Equally vital is reward. If ALL you ever do is punish your child then you’ve got a problem that YOU created. IF you actually, truly love your child you will use punishment when it is clearly and unavoidably needed but you will ALSO look and look hard for opportunities to reward correct behavior.

    If you’re a good parent it won’t take you long to realize that well disciplined children require very little punishment. If you’re a truly good parent you won’t allow discipline to degrade to the point where you’re saying or doing things that are ACTUAL abuse. If you’re at that point you have already failed as a good parent and the most you can aspire to is mediocrity.

    I see by your photos that you two authors are very young ladies. I’m a grandpa 8 times over so I’ve been through the FULL gamut of child rearing and seeing the results of parenting FIRST HAND in my own children who are now grown adults, and how they treat their children.

    I raised two boys who grew up to become great husbands and fathers. They love me and I them, their kids love grandpa and we are all a very close family which is not only satisfying but gratifying at this stage of my life. The results of my parenting skills are vindication of my methods and proof that I did it right. I did it right because I love them and wanted them to become responsible adults and good citizens.

    I didn’t get there by being afraid I would accidentally “abuse” my boys. When they did something stupid they got called on it.

    It’s OK to say “Gee, what you did (or didn’t do) was really dumb. You didn’t think that through at all. Now you’re going to suffer the consequences.” And then make SURE they actually DO suffer the consequences.

    It’s not OK to say “Gee, you’re really stupid and will never amount to anything because you’re so dumb.” and then go back to your beer and the ballgame on TV.

    If you don’t KNOW the difference then I’m sorry but you really don’t KNOW what it is to truly love your children. If you need to be TOLD that then you really shouldn’t be allowed to rear children.

    If you’re getting so frustrated with your kids you’re calling them names and hurting them unfairly then you have let discipline fail to the point where the kids are being damaged far worse than the hurtful words that come out of your frustrated mouth.

    Those two boys of mine? As they were growing up one got exactly ONE real whipping with my belt, the other got TWO. That is in their entire career as children. That was how often discipline had broken down to the point where that kind of corporal punishment was needed. That was more than 30 years ago and I still remember all three events as though they were yesterday, it made as much impression on me as it did them. Because I felt their pain even though I was the one administering it. In those three instances the consequences of not administering that kind of punishment outweighed the pain from my belt.

    We went by the “Rule of Three” and we followed it unfailingly. The Rule of Three is-

    1. First offense I assume you didn’t know you shouldn’t do that (or that you should do that, whichever is applicable) so I will explain it to you in depth. The lecture and having to sit through it and answer responsively is the punishment aspect. Taking the time to deliver the lecture and reasoning with/listening to the child is the loving aspect.

    2. The second time you do the same thing you got lectured for, you get punished. This means “time out’s” and such in younger children. As they grow you have to get more creative. When my boys were old enough to fully grasp the situation they would often test the boundaries and the punishment needed to fit the offense. Groundings and such lose their impact if employed too often. We lived in a very interesting, massive old farmhouse. It had copper pipes in the basement and brass door handles. One of my favorite sentences was “Here’s a bottle of Brasso, polish the (pipes, doorknobs, one or both depending on the severity called for.) This is just an example for the sake of clarity and brevity, I could write a book on creative punishment that fits the infraction.

    3. If the above two attempts at discipline are not successful then the last resort is corporal punishment. By this time they KNEW what was coming and that it would be inevitable and severe. Thus we rarely got to #3, it only took the younger son once but the elder needed two demonstrations of my sincerity and resolve.

    The Rule of Three was not applicable to whining, cajoling, arguing (as opposed to discussing) or playing my wife against me or vice versa. Those were already well established taboo and would result in immediately proceeding to Rule 2, or could result in that smack on the back of the head you condemn in your article if the bad attitude did not demonstrate swift improvement.

    Today they are responsible loving husbands and fathers, both employed in the same profession at the same workplace for well over a decade (one is a Naval Officer and Navy Pilot) and they are raising their my grandbabies the same way they were raised.

    They not only have their rearing instilled by experience but have done conscientious research and applied their own very considerable reasoning skills to the parenting question and came to the conclusion I was right and a good parent. (Of course when I say “I” what I mean is ME as head of household who establishes and enforces policy under consultation and consideration of my wife’s opinions and ideas. My wife and I had to reach a consensus to implement a household policy but that’s another discussion for another time.)

    My wife and I never gave them any cause to doubt we loved them and I don’t’ think they every seriously entertained the possibility that we didn’t. If in a fit of pique they did, they have gotten over it and forgotten about it because now that they’re adults I’ve discussed this and many other issues with them.

    As they grow up you stand between your children and the world. You let through what is needful and you protect them from what is harmful. But no matter what else you do, you prepare them to do the same with their children and fortify them to deal with the world when they are adults.

    If I say “No you can’t have that box of cookies” that had better be the end of it right there right now. If I have to say it twice it will be in the form of “What part of “NO” did you not understand?” If it gets past that point you can tut-tut and be scandalized as I administer a smack to the back of a head wherein resides an attitude that needs it’s reset button pushed.

    Never lie to your kids. If you say you’re going to do something then bend heaven and earth to do it or don’t let the words come out of your mouth in the first place. If you say “We’re going to (the Zoo, Disneyland, lake, pool, whatever) on Saturday then DO it even if it’s massively inconvenient. If you say “Do that again and I’ll smack you a good one.” then DO it without hesitation or compunction if they do that again. Life can throw curve balls so if it becomes impossible to do what you said then issue a “rain check” that you KNOW you can meet. If something comes up at work (you NEED your job to feed, house and clothe your family) and you absolutely can’t take them to Disneyland on Saturday then re-schedule it for a time you are positive you can fulfill your promise. If they’re acting up in a quiet, crowded theater tell them “When we get home you’re going to get it.”- then follow through without fail and they’ll KNOW you’re not shining them on and letting them get away with unacceptable behavior. They’ll also know that the more the behavior continues the worse the punishment will get because they KNOW you’re not lying to them.

    If your children are “scarred” from your just and needful discipline then those “scars” are life-lessons like the healed burn from touching a hot stove or the knitted bone from a fall out of a tree. Not all “scars” carry a negative connotation.

    You can play your politically correct, wishy-washy Dr. Spock-ish head games all you want but if parents raised their kids PROPERLY with real love and not “feel good” love then 90%+ of our social and criminal problems would be extinct. The fact that these things even need to be said is a sad commentary on the degradation of our society.

  • S Gee
    Posted at 07:36h, 23 May

    Obviously I’m not the perfect parent like the first commenter must have been. Congratulations. But at 58 years old with kids and grandkids, and having been raised in a traditional, hard-working, responsible family, I was spanked and whipped with a willow tree switch or belt only a very few times in my childhood (only on the legs); yes, my parents did a good job there; I don’t believe in letting kids get away with whatever they want, and expect them to work for what they want. But where my parents may have made a mistake (don’t we all) was in the words and attitudes used by them, and by my older siblings that were never corrected, plus a lack of positive words reinforcing of anything good about me, that to this day I still have a vision of myself that is not correct. In 1977 when I first married, weighing a mere 125 pounds, in my mind I was as fat as I am today at 175 pounds. In my mind I was as ugly then as I am now. Words are very powerful, and can leave life-long scars. I can even look at photos at how thin and pretty I really was, but it doesn’t help me today. I am easily intimidated, don’t feel I am capable of doing anything worthwhile. I feel like a failure in everything I do. Don’t EVER dismiss the harm that words can inflict!!! They are truly as harmful as anything physical; and conversely, positive and loving words can uplift and heal. My kids had to have a job before getting their drivers license and they paid for their own car, their own gas, and their own insurance. I reprimanded, then showed forth love. That’s about the best I could do.

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