7 Serious Effects Of Verbal Abuse On Children

If you think that yelling at your child, calling him names or being aggressive in your criticism can be considered harmless, you are wrong. Here are seven ways verbal abuse adversely affects a child.

By Ashwin Lobo

7 Serious Effects Of Verbal Abuse On Children

Verbal abuse refers to any form of communication which is aggressive in nature. Individuals with abusive tendencies are prone to verbally abusing those around them, including colleagues, siblings, partners and even, their children. 

But, do you know what really constitutes verbal abuse? If not, then here is a list of such behaviours:

  • Insulting
  • Yelling
  • Nagging
  • Criticising
  • Belittling
  • Undermining
  • Swearing
  • Threatening

As a parent, you will never even think of hitting your child because you know that physical punishment can leave a child feeling hurt, scared and miserable. However, most parents don't feel the same way about verbal abuse, even though it is just as devastating for a child. 

For instance, some parents often rationalise verbal abuse by saying, “If my child’s behaviours, attitudes or perceptions were different, I wouldn’t have cause to criticise or nag him.” This way, they deflect the blame of their abusive behaviour on to the child. In doing so, not only do they emotionally harm their child but also, damage the parent–child relationship.

However, the scars left behind by verbal abuse during childhood can have serious repercussions throughout a child's life. Here's how it can affect a child:

  1. Change the developing brain: The environment in which a child lives determines how her brain develops. When a child grows up in a safe, attentive and nurturing environment, she grows up to be emotionally stable. However, a child in a hostile, unsupportive or abusive environment experiences stress, which adversely affects brain development. This fact is corroborated by the study, 'Childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced volume in the hippocampal subfields CA3, dentate gyrus, and subiculum', by Teicher et al published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ( 2011). According to the study, verbal abuse-induced stress during childhood can reduce the number of neurons in the hippocampus — the part of the brain concerned with emotional regulation. This suggests that the harm wrought upon a child by verbal abuse alters the structure of the brain.
  2.  Decrease self-confidence: Constant nagging, yelling and belittling can lower a child’s self-confidence. Frequently telling a child that he is 'not good at anything' can make the child believe after some time that he really is 'good for nothing'. This can make him lose faith in his abilities and hesitate to engage in new activities. For example, if a child is constantly told that he is stupid, he will begin to believe this is to be true and will perform poorly across all aspects of life. But, if parents remain supportive even when he fares badly, he will improve with time.
  3. Give rise to inferiority complex: A young child is trying to understand who she is and find out her place in the world. So, it is very important that she be allowed to explore and experiment. However, when adults regularly belittle or insult a child, she begins to believe that the only reason elders are being harsh with them is because she isn't good enough. Over time, this thought leads a child to develop an inferiority complex and believe that her peers are better than her.
  4. Increase the chances of substance abuse: A child who grows up in an abusive household is more likely to be driven to drug or alcohol addiction. A child who is verbally abused over a prolonged period internalises the criticisms and judgements, and carries the pain felt from abuse into adulthood. To escape or mask those feelings, he may turn to substance abuse.
  5. Lead to depression: Repeated verbal abuse, including criticism, is likely to make a child self-critical. This can lead her to become disillusioned and feel like life is not worth living. In some cases, these feelings can also escalate into depression. In any case, depression has been on the rise in the last few decades and verbal abuse only serves to exacerbate the problem.
  6. Affect physical health: While it is obvious that verbal abuse affects a child’s mental health, it also has serious effects on physical health. A child who is a victim of verbal abuse may engage in personal neglect or self-harm. This could lead to a number of problematic behaviours ranging from ignoring personal hygiene to cutting or burning himself to, eating or sleeping disorders because of fear and stress. These issues could lead to further complications and, make him end up feeling even worse.
  7. Increase abusive tendencies: An individual who is verbally abused as a child is more likely to grow up and become abusive herself. This is because, she may internalise abusive behaviour and imitate it later on. As a result, she is likely to be abusive towards her own children. Thus, the cycle of abuse goes on — as even the children may pick up the habit.

As a parent, do not dismiss verbal abuse as 'words' that you think won't hurt your child. On the contrary, it can be extremely harmful and have a lasting effect on your child. So, take the time to introspect on your behaviour. Then, make a conscious decision to change the way you treat your child.

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