Sticks and stone can leave broken bones and bruised bodies, but verbal abuse can have devastating effects that can last for years. How To Create Your World With Words
A Normal Pre-Teen Girl
Kathy’s mother frequently told her that she was no good. She’d never amount to anything. She was a disappointment to the whole family. Nobody would ever want her.
One day when Kathy was 12, she and her little sister, Beth, who was seven years younger, overheard her mother talking on the phone, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with Kathy. She is such an embarrassment to me. I just don’t know what’s going to happen to her. She’ll probably get pregnant then I’ll have another kid to raise. Sometimes I wish she’d never been born.” Beth put her arms around Kathy as tears ran down her face. “She doesn’t mean it,” she’s just upset because you got a “C” on that last test. Kathy began accepting her mother’s words as truth.
Looking For Love
She desperately needed someone to love her. She started looking for love in all the wrong places. Just like mother had said, she got pregnant at 14. Her mother was furious. She found a home for unwed mothers. Unbeknownst to Kathy, Mom made arrangements for the home to adopt out the baby and not allow Kathy to see it.
Kathy hadn’t received any visitors or even a phone call. The home told her that arrangements had been made for her father to pick her up when she was ready to leave. Kathy thought that was very strange since she had never even seen her father. But, she had learned years ago not to cause any waves. She said nothing.
The day came when she was to leave. She walked to the main office with backpack in hand. She saw an older man, the right age to be her father, talking to the clerk at the front counter. As she approached he said, “Hi, darling, are you ready to go? Do you have everything?” She nodded and exited the building as he held the door open.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m your soon to be husband,” he said with a big smile.
“You’re old enough to be my dad.”
“I know. But, I wanted a wife and your mother wanted a home for you. It worked out perfectly. We’re going to New York City where you can get married under eighteen with a notarized document, which I have from your mother. I have your wedding dress in the car.”
He continued rambling about their perfect day.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “And where do we live?”
He filled in all the missing pieces for her, but her mind couldn’t comprehend exactly what was happening to her.
“How could mom do this to me? Well, at least I’ll have a place to live.”
Kathy wondered what kind of prison she was being sentenced to at age 15. “Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?”
Words Will Never Harm You
Remember the old adage, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me’.
The earliest citation of it that I can find is from an American periodical with a largely black audience, The Christian Recorder, March 1862. It infers that true courage consists in doing what is right, despite the jeers and sneers of other hateful people.
Many of our parents told us this when we’d cry because someone said something mean to us. Our parents brushed it off as “child’s play”, but the mean words hurt. We’d wonder how it could hurt so badly when our parents said: “words would never harm us.”
I suppose it was useful in its time, but more recently we see how words can actually cause more long term damage than broken bones. Martin Teicher M.D., Ph.D., and others have discovered in their researcher that during the middle school years, when a child’s brain is actively developing, peer bullying and verbal abuse from any source can cause physical changes in the brain.
Emotional Pain versus Physical Pain
There is a definite connection between physical and emotional pain. We suffer as much from a “broken heart” as we do from “broken bones”. We are hardwired to feel emotional pain as much as physical pain.
People who have had severe emotional pain have stated that they’d rather have the breaks and bruises that would show rather than the invisible emotional pain of verbal abuse. Verbal abuse can be very difficult to prove if complaints are filed, whereas, physical abuse is very evident.
Lollie Bar states in her blog BodyandSoul.com, “But ultimately, it’s often words that can do the most damage. Other people’s words have an incredible power to affect how we see and feel about ourselves. While positive words of encouragement can uplift and inspire us, negative words cut to the core and resonate over and over again.”
Let’s take a few steps backward. Too many times the verbal abuse starts in the home when the children are small.
Have you heard a parent, a teacher, or a coach yell at kids or call them a name? Some adults seem to think that yelling at their kids or someone else’s kids, is a natural and effective means of discipline. For some parents, yelling is the standard way of discipline. When they get really frustrated with them they start calling the kids names. When the frustration progresses to anger they begin cussing at them.
Another form of verbal abuse is silence, a passive-aggressive way of control other people and circumstances. From personal experience, it’s as difficult to deal with as the yelling.
“Just because we can’t see the wounds doesn’t mean they aren’t literally and physically there.” – Peg Streep, Psychology Today.
Long Term Effect of Verbal Abuse
Research shows that verbal abuse can undermine a child’s self-esteem, damage his/her ability to trust others and form good relationships in the teenage years and as adults. It can also cause problems with their school work and social skills. Verbal abuse from an adult can be just as destructive as physical or sexual abuse. It can also put them at risk for depression and anxiety.
“Words can be as damaging to the mind as physical blows are to the body.” – Patricia Evans author of Teen Torment: Overcoming Verbal Abuse at Home and at School.
Long Term Effects
- They become victims of abuse later in life
- They become abusive themselves – abuse victims often become abusers because that’s what they learned.
- They often develop depression, anxiety, and become self-destructive later in life
Our Kids Learn To Do What We Do Better Than We Did
Mom received an email that Kathy’s baby had been adopted and her father had picked her up. She sat in the rocking chair in a very pensive mood, wondering how Kathy was. Had she made a bad mistake?
Beth was in her room playing when Mom heard her voice.
“You’re no good. You’ll never amount to anything. You are a disappointment to this whole family. Nobody will ever want you.”
Tears filled Mom’s eyes as she listened to Beth’s voice coming from the other room.
Then she heard a loud crash. She quietly got out of her chair and walked to the doorway to Beth’s room. Beth had picked up her doll and smashed the doll’s head against the wall, “That’ll teach you to be good.” Beth stood looking at the dolls head busted open laying on the floor.
“What have I done?” Mom began sobbing.
She began to realize that her verbal and emotional abuse had become a pattern of behavior. Now, Beth had picked up the pattern. “If she’s doing this to her doll, what will she be like when she’s an adult?”
Mom Becoming Self-Aware
The guilt of sending Kathy away had begun to eat at Mom. She began reading about verbal and physical abuse. She thought back to when she was Beth and Kathy’s ages. She had been raised by her grandmother because her mother was an alcoholic. She knew Grandma loved her, but she was too old to deal with an active girl. Grandma often cussed her out and used some of the same words that she had used on Kathy.
Looking back, she realized that Grandma was never as cruel or mean as she’d been to Kathy. The articles stated that “Most experts believe that children who are raised in abusive homes learn that violence is an effective way to resolve conflicts and problems.” Domestic Violence Roundtable. It also stated that the patterns of abuse are often more intense with the next generation.
She realized that she was Beth’s role model. Beth was already displaying abusive behaviors with her dolls. It was too late for her to change for Kathy, but perhaps she could change Beth’s future by changing her own behavior.
She started going to a counselor and a support group. She learned to recognize when her own emotions began to rise. Instead of allowing herself to say mean things to Beth she took a break and went into a different room. She learned how to take several deep breaths and allow her emotions to calm. She also learned how to deal with the present issue only and not allowing past issues to come into the conversation.
She wanted Beth to feel loved unconditionally. She learned how to calmly correct Beth’s behavior instead of abusing her. She emphasized the message, “I don’t like what you did; and I still love you.”
Her counselor taught her to use the RETHINK method of dealing with children:
Recognize your feelings.
Empathize with your child.
Think of the situation differently. (Try using humor.)
Hear what your child is saying.
Integrate your love with your angry thoughts.
Notice your body’s reactions to feeling anger and to calming down.
Keep your attention on the present problem.
by Dena Warfield