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Impacts of Verbal Abuse on Children and Adults

Key Takeaways:

  • Verbal abuse can have serious psychological, emotional, and physical effects on both children and adults. This includes things like low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and social isolation.
  • Verbal abuse can also lead to physical health problems, such as eating disorders and headaches.
  • Verbal abuse can create cycles of abuse in future generations. This is because children who are exposed to verbal abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves.

Verbal abuse – the use of harmful, demeaning words to attack someone’s sense of self – conjures up images of shouting matches and angry diatribes. But this form of emotional abuse often takes subtler forms like criticism, insults, gaslighting, and manipulation. Either way, the effects cut deep, undermining self-confidence, mental health, and overall well-being.

As a therapist, I should know – that clients who grew up in a household where verbal attacks were commonplace experienced those impacts firsthand. And as I eventually discovered, their stories are all too familiar for many folks. Research suggests over half of the children suffer frequent verbal aggression at home.

In this article, I want to walk through the diverse range of problems – psychological, physical, and beyond – that abusive language can seed over both the short- and long-term. My goal is to shed light on this murky topic and empower anyone currently enduring or healing from a verbally abusive relationship.

Psychological and Emotional Impacts

Child sitting in their bedroom after verbal abuse

The words that cut deepest often leave the most invisible scars. Verbal abuse, especially when chronic and originating from close relatives in childhood, can significantly undermine mental health and have long-term effects.

Low Self-Esteem and Lack of Confidence

Repeated verbal yelling attacks aim at how we perceive ourselves and chip away at self-worth by belittling. Statements like:

  • “You’re so stupid.”
  • “You can’t do anything right.”
  • “You’ll never amount to anything.”

Over time, it erodes confidence and leaves victims feeling:

  • Inadequate
  • Worthless
  • Ashamed

I remember a client’s father’s verbal aggression, making them anxious to speak up in school or try new activities growing up. His words implanted a little inner critic that would surface to sabotage them anytime they started making progress.

Reframing core beliefs planted by cruel comments is challenging but possible with time and effort. Finding areas you excel at and surrounding yourself with supportive people helps counter those distorted self-perceptions.

The words that cut deepest often leave the most invisible scars. Verbal abuse, especially when chronic and originating from close relatives in childhood, can significantly undermine mental health and have long-term effects.

Anxiety, Depression and Other Mental Health Issues

The unrelenting stress of verbal abuse also takes a cumulative toll on mental health. Studies show it significantly increases risks for:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Suicidal ideation

Clients recall feeling pervasively on edge anytime their verbally abusive parent was around. They’d anxiously scan for any potential trigger to set off the next attack. Hypervigilance became a survival tactic.

For me, the most painful aspect was questioning why they deserved such treatment from their own father. Making sense of senseless cruelty often leads victims (especially kids who idealize parents) down rabbit holes of:

  • Self-blame
  • Hopelessness
  • Isolation

Seeking counselling and a qualified therapist helps counter those negative thought spirals.

Social Isolation and Withdrawal

The emotional anguish inflicted by this form of emotional abuse frequently makes victims withdraw from external relationships. After years of criticism, we instinctively try to protect ourselves by avoiding scrutiny from others.

Common social impacts include:

  • Skipping social engagements
  • Declining invitations to speak publicly or share talents/ideas
  • Reticence in making new friends

Verbal abuse survivors often still notice residual hesitations when meeting new groups, likely rooted in old insecurities sown by cutting parental remarks over the years. But finding each courageous social step – despite the initial awkwardness – can build confidence to continue connecting with others.

Clingy Behaviour and Attachment Issues

Surprisingly, verbal abuse can also cause some children to become excessively clingy towards their caregivers. This seemingly paradoxical reaction relates to fears of rejection and abandonment.

When parents don’t provide adequate nurturing, kids desperately crave demonstrations of love and acceptance. So, despite the harsh words, they cling to their abusers, hoping to earn affection and validation.

Over time, this engenders empathy issues, distrust of others, and unhealthy attachment patterns that pervade future relationships. My sister struggled with a string of codependent boyfriends seeking elusive approval she never received growing up.

The ability of verbal barrages to damage someone’s inner landscape should never be underestimated or excused.

Physical Health Effects

The mind and body share an intimate connection. Just as psychological insults can manifest physically, so too can verbal abuse leave corporeal imprints that linger for years. Let’s examine some common somatic impacts.

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Disrupted Eating Habits and Nutrition

Words wield immense power over our relationship with food. Comments like:

  • “You’re getting fat!”
  • “Don’t eat so much!”
  • “You’re such a pig.”

Often, it sparks disordered eating patterns as victims attempt to control intake to mollify critics. Alternatively, some overeat as an emotional salve, trying to “feed” unmet nurturing needs.

In early teens, a relative’s constant remarks about one’s weight can trigger bulimic behaviours. Binging gives temporary comfort before guilt compels purging. It often takes counselling to untangle the root psychological causes driving those impulses.

Poor Physical Development and Growth Delays

The biological stress reactions induced by chronic verbal abuse also can inhibit proper growth in children. Mind/body resources constantly diverted towards managing fear, anxiety, and distress get robbed from properly supporting developmental processes.

Studies correlate adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like verbal aggression with:

  • Impaired immune function
  • Delayed motor skills
  • Bone/muscle deficits
  • Vitamin/mineral deficiencies

Stress-Induced Conditions

Later in life, the accrued allostatic load accumulated from ongoing or childhood verbal attacks weakens physiological resilience. The hair-trigger stress responses and inflammatory changes leave abuse survivors vulnerable to issues like:

  • Chronic headaches/migraines
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic pain and fatigue

For one client – sporadic migraines often occurred in college – when they begin setting firmer boundaries with family. In retrospect, those painful episodes often reflect the complex physiological impacts of decades of tense family dynamics.

While invisible on the surface, the health consequences of the effects of verbal abuse run deep – often emerging years later without context.

Behavioural Changes and Risks

The psychological imprint of verbal aggression frequently ripples outward, shaping behavioural patterns and lifestyle choices. Let’s explore some common conduct issues that may emerge.

Aggression, Bullying and Conduct Problems

Ironic as it sounds, verbally attacked kids often mimic and redirect those confrontational behaviours towards others. Social learning theory explains why – we subconsciously model influential figures in our world.

If parents, older siblings, or relatives frequently:

  • Insult us
  • Scream hurtful things
  • Use emotional intimidation

We implicitly assume those dynamics seem normal. Then, in the schoolyard or neighbourhood, we perpetuate similar bullying without understanding the implications.

My clients’ teenage brother tormented them for years with the very same harsh nicknames and taunting he endured from their father. The cycle of verbal violence continued until outside mentors helped them unlearn those harmful interaction styles.

Delinquency and Legal Troubles

More broadly, childhood verbal abuse correlates strongly with a spectrum of antisocial behaviours like:

  • School truancy
  • Underage drinking
  • Illicit drug use
  • Promiscuity
  • Gang involvement
  • Vandalism/property crimes
  • Self-harm

Emotional distress alters decision-making and lowers inhibitions – especially in adolescents lacking adequate support systems. 

Example – I still shudder to recall the phase after my first airline flight when I dreamed of stowing away to escape home. A profound sense of not belonging plagued me for years.

Substance Abuse and Other Addictions

Self-medicating to numb the anguish inflicted by cruel words presents another outlet for behavioural risk-taking. The CDC links early-life verbal aggression with:

  • 3 times higher alcoholism
  • 4 times more prescription opioid abuse
  • 5 times increased injected drug use

Whether alcohol, nicotine, opioids or beyond – abused kids often gravitate towards substances promising emotional escape and comfort.

Antisocial Tendencies

In severe cases, the pent-up fury from chronic belittlement and rage eventually boils over – culminating in violence or unlawful acts. Serial killers like Edmund Kemper disturbingly described constant parental verbal lashings, warping their perspectives on human worth and life.

While dramatic, these extreme criminal manifestations spotlight the influential imprint of words. Unchecked verbal toxicity festers, subtly nurturing anti-social thoughts and behaviours if victims don’t achieve timely understanding and intervention.

In essence, reacting to the hurt of verbal abuse poses one of childhood’s greatest developmental challenges. However, reversing those latent effects necessitates tremendous self-awareness alongside professional support.

Developmental and Cognitive Impacts

The chronic stress inflicted by verbal aggression also disrupts key childhood developmental processes – compromising academic achievement and cognitive skills.

Poor Academic Performance

Difficulty focusing and retaining information unsurprisingly translates to subpar school performance for verbally abused kids. Studies reveal correlations with:

  • Lower grade point averages
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Greater likelihood of failing courses or repeating grades

My clients still recall the knotted stomach and panic attacks that made concentrating in class nearly impossible after harsh arguments at home. Simply escaping those verbal lashings meant learning often took a backseat.

Speech and Language Delays

On a more subtle but equally detrimental level, verbal onslaughts also disrupt communication skill-building. Children who hear mostly criticism, sarcasm, or shouting have scarce positive linguistic role modelling.

Consequently, abused kids frequently showcase:

  • Limited vocabularies
  • Poor enunciation
  • Immature grammar

In short, the cognitive toll of verbal abuse potentially ripples across lifespan development, undercutting educational trajectories and achievement. Yet patient instruction tailored to overcome those barriers can still help verbally abused children flourish.

Intergenerational Cycles of Abuse

One of the hardest things for people who were verbally abused as kids is that the abuse often continues with their children. Just like some diseases run in families, patterns of parents yelling at kids often go from one generation to the next. The mean words used on someone as a child can come back out when they become a parent.

Abusive Tendencies in Adulthood

A seminal finding within abuse literature shows adults mistreated as children stand higher odds of becoming aggressors themselves. Without self-awareness, pain unconsciously seeks outlets through displaced rage.

A father’s temper and insults likely reflected his troubled upbringing. But lacking counselling, the wounded boy within the man persisted – perpetuating verbal violence throughout childhood.

Breaking cycles requires courageous self-reflection. Generational curses only dissolve when shining light upon shadowed pain that hides within our lineages. We must nurture that abandoned inner child still longing for unconditional love.

Difficulties Providing Nurture and Affection

Similarly, the nurturance deficit sustained from childhood verbal abuse may resurface as difficulty expressing warmth or physical affection with our own kids.

Attachment disorders rooted in denying nurture to helpless children run deep. Victims subconsciously normalize that deficient care, never learning skills for attentiveness and listening that compassionate parenting necessitates.

Escaping intergenerational patterns demands intentionality regarding our deepest emotional blueprint and wiring. Seeking counselling supports expanding self- and social awareness – helping us continually revisit our values.

Healing from Verbal Abuse

While the painful imprint of verbal aggression endures over the years, healing remains possible through compassion, counsel, community, and personal growth. If you are currently suffering abusive speech or overcoming its lingering effects, please know that hope lives on the horizon.

Recognizing Patterns of Verbal Attacks

The first step is acknowledging the inappropriate nature of any criticism or communication intended to shame, control, or diminish your sense of safety or self-worth. Consider keeping a journal tracking:

  • Times/scenarios when hurtful language arises
  • Who tends to weaponize words against you
  • How verbal barbs typically make you feel

Spotting those patterns provides clarity regarding relationships requiring boundaries or termination. You deserve interactions nourishing your spirit – not tearing it down.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

Once recognizing verbally toxic connections, establish explicit boundaries regarding what communication styles feel permissible. Clearly convey what languages/tones support your well-being versus triggering past trauma.

If certain individuals continually violate those boundaries through insults or intimidation, reducing contact or severing ties may prove necessary for self-protection – even with family.

Seeking Professional Help

While establishing distance buffers the initial ache of verbal injury, counselling often proves essential for fully dislodging the deep-seated psychological shrapnel left behind.

Among the myriad supports formal therapy provides:

  • Validating your experiences through empathetic listening
  • Helping contextualize hurtful behaviours based on the abuser’s own unresolved pain
  • Teaching coping strategies for anxiety, depression, and emotional regulation
  • Challenging old neural wiring and core limiting beliefs

If financially feasible, I cannot overstate the immense value of working through verbal abuse with a seasoned mental health professional.

Rebuilding Self-Worth and Confidence

Armoured by therapeutic insights and skills, we stand poised to resume authoring our life story – this time aligning choices with personal values and needs instead of conforming to the projected expectations of critics.

Slowly, we might:

  • Explore latent passions abandoned in childhood
  • Express creativity long-suppressed
  • Pursue education or adventures awakening new horizons of self-actualization

Wherever you are, please know – you are not alone. And you deserve to feel whole.

Counselling Services in BC and ON

Our clinic offers specialized counselling services if you’re in British Columbia or Ontario and are looking for longer-term support. Our counsellors and psychotherapists are trained to help you navigate abuse’s emotional and psychological impacts. We provide a safe, confidential space where you can begin your healing journey.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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