Children are young and impressionable, and the things said to them, along with the beliefs they derive from such statements, will mean more than just about anything done to them. Verbal abuse is like a gun; it doesn’t take much to squeeze the trigger, but that doesn’t prevent it from causing some serious damage. Verbal and emotional abuse is a form of social abuse. The three terms are virtually interchangeable. Verbal abuse consists of socially threatening statements to a child; comments that attack a child’s need for love, acceptance, and positive regard from their caretakers. It either attacks a child’s sense of attachment with their caretakers, or it attacks their social identity and self-worth; and quite frequently both. Either way, it attacks the two biggest foundations for a child’s life: attachment and social belonging.

Dickerson & Kemeny (2004) make the argument that threats to the social self (such as being ridiculed, humiliated, called names, cut down or judged) are so potent biologically that they rival threats to our very survival in terms of their stress-inducing properties. Such experiences attack the core of one’s self-worth. After all, as the brain equation goes, if we are judged to be undesirable, we may suffer complete rejection, which is a threat to one’s very life and happiness. Children, whose very survival depends on being accepted and cared for by adults, are all the more sensitive to such ridicule. When they find themselves the source of harsh judgment by the people they depend on for love and affection, it is a profoundly painful experience. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that registers both social and physical pain, and there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two. Social hurts have been shown to be just as bad as physical pain. (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004)

The forms verbal and emotional abuse take are many and varied. Our next pages are devoted to discussing each type of abuse. These are:

  • Direct attacks & name calling
  • Subtle put-downs
  • Negative comparisons
  • Blaming or criticizing
  • Putting kids down
  • Humiliation
  • Psychological control
  • Intimidation
  • Withholding