Science has shown that name-calling can change a child's brain structure and cause serious problems.
If Your Mom or Dad Called You Names
- Did one or both of your parents call you derogatory names when you were growing up?
- Did you ever wonder how that name-calling affected you as a child … and now as an adult?
- Did you know that name-calling can change the structure of a youngster’s brain and lead to long-term problems in life?
We’ve all heard that childhood chant: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. That old brag should be officially retired, however, since science has proven it false. Contrary to what we believed in the past, new research in the field of neuroscience shows that verbal abuse during childhood can be just as harmful as other forms of mistreatment.
The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.
— Peggy O’Mara, author of “Natural Family Living”
Name-Calling Destroys the Parent-Child Bond
- When my sister and I entered adolescence, our waif-like frames began to grow curvier, and our dad gave us the nicknames “buffalo butt” and “rhino rump.”
- When we became teenagers, he called us “stupid” and “dingbats” when we made small mistakes like misplacing our car keys or leaving too many lights on in the house.
- When we began dating, he labeled us “tramps” and said we were “acting slutty” when we broke up with a boyfriend or dated someone new.
Even as a youngster, I knew my father’s name-calling was juvenile. It made him seem more like a bullying older brother than a warm, loving parent. All these decades later, although he died years ago, I started wondering what effects his verbal abuse had on my life. I decided to research how parental name-calling impacts a child. I discovered it can be far more devastating than we ever imagined in five significant ways.
5 Effects of Calling a Child Names
- It can distance a child from both parents.
- It can crush a youngster’s self-image.
- It can break down communication.
- It can change a child’s brain structure.
- It can be remembered and continue to harm a person for years to come.
Each of these negative effects is described fully below.
1. It Can Distance a Child From Both Parents (Yes, Both)
Although our father’s name-calling happened decades ago, it’s still hitting our family hard today. For example, our 80-year-old mother needs assistance but my sister refuses to have anything to do with her. As fiercely protective mama bears, she and I simply can’t fathom how our mom just stood by as our dad treated us cruelly.
Even if they don’t say a thing, a parent can participate in childhood abuse. According to Athena Phillips, a therapist who works with trauma patients, a non-offending parent’s inaction creates confusion for survivors of childhood abuse. Survivors will wonder if that parent was complicit in their mistreatment or was yet another victim of it. They question why that parent didn’t step in to stop it. As a result, they feel removed not only from the abusive parent but from the non-offending one as well.
2. It Can Crush a Youngster’s Self-Image
When children get called names like “fatso” or “loser” at school, it can be damaging to their self-image and make them doubt who they are. However, the impact of name-calling is far more devastating when those hurtful labels get assigned by a parent. Sadly, some moms and dads are under the misconception that their words don’t matter to preteens and teens. They incorrectly believe that these older kids only get influenced by their peers.
In his book Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, Dr. Carl Pickhardt says that contrary to popular belief, what parents say still has a huge impact on preteens and teens. He advises moms and dads to think before they speak. He warns: “parents remain the most powerful source of social approval in a teenager’s world, and they need to be mindful of that.”
When my father dubbed my sister and me “rhino rump” and “buffalo butt” when we were preteens, he thought it was clever and funny. However, we found it deeply humiliating. In the years and decades that followed, we struggled with body image, weight, self-esteem, and our relationship with food. Even today, I avoid my reflection in mirrors, windows, and glass doors, frightened to see a hideous monster staring back at me. My sister and I will never know how much our problems were caused by those mean names our father called us so long ago. When I think about it now, though, it still hurts.
3. It Can Break Down Communication
When a parent engages in name-calling, one of the most disastrous effects is that children clam up and withdraw. Feeling worthless and unloved, they may partake in self-destructive behaviors such as drinking, using drugs, hanging out with the wrong crowd, self-mutilating, and having unprotected sex. They may no longer trust the parent who labeled them, impeding communication. Those kids will be careful not to reveal anything to the offending parent that could be used against them.
After years of enduring my father’s name-calling, in my teen years, I shut down and rarely spoke to him. My sister went off to college, married right after graduation, and never returned home again. My dad’s verbal abuse during our growing up years contaminated our relationships with him and it could never be repaired. Although he softened in his later years and wanted a deeper connection with us, his name-calling had prevented us from ever bonding with him. The loving, compassionate feelings just weren’t there.
4. It Can Change a Child’s Brain Structure
Many of us think name-calling isn’t nearly as destructive as physical or sexual abuse. In some families (such as my own), name-calling was even viewed as a positive thing—a way to toughen you up and prepare you for the harsh realities of the world. However, new research in the field of neuroscience shows that verbal abuse during childhood can be just as harmful as other forms of mistreatment. It can have a lasting effect on the structure of the brain and lead to anxiety, depression, hostility, learning deficits, behavioral issues, and drug abuse.
In “Sticks and Stones—Hurtful Words Damage the Brain,” Dr. R. Douglas Fields discusses a recent study conducted at Harvard Medical School using magnetic resonance imagining (MRI). The findings show that name-calling, taunting, and other forms of verbal abuse left a structural imprint on the developing brains of preteens and teens. Fields writes,
“now we have scientific instruments that show us how dramatically childhood experience alters the physical structure of the brain, and how sensitive we are as children to environmental effects. Words—verbal harassment—from peers (and, as a previous study from these researchers showed, verbal abuse from a child’s parents) can cause far more than emotional harm.”
As someone who’s battled depression and social anxiety most of my life, I find this illuminating. While I certainly realized my father’s name-calling made me feel sad and helpless, I had no idea it had the potential to change the structure of my brain at a critical point in its development. The old schoolyard chant about sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me is scientifically inaccurate. Words are indeed powerful things, and they can do far more damage than we ever imagined.
The first step in recovering from verbal abuse is recognizing that it took place. This is often difficult for many reasons, including “normalizing” the household; still wanting a connection to the parent or parents; buying into the cultural notion that verbal abuse isn’t really corrosive; and more. The good news is that with help and support, that internalized tape loop can be shut off and replaced with not just a more affirming message, but—at long last—one which finally reflects who you are.
— Peg Streep, author of Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life
5. It Can Be Remembered for Years to Come
After more than a half-century on this planet, some childhood memories have become murky. But I can still recall the exact locations in my family home where I stood when my father called me “buffalo butt.” I can still remember how I wanted to flee the house and never come back. I can still remember feeling betrayed and belittled. I can still remember the embarrassment I felt as my siblings watched.
It turns out my ability to clearly recall these horrible name-calling episodes is not unique to me. In “The Enduring Pain of Childhood Verbal Abuse,” Peg Streep explains that humans store such assaults in their brains for evolutionary reasons. Any kind of attack—physical, emotional, or verbal—is kept alive in our memories as a way to survive potential threats in the future. In other words, those painful memories we’d like to forget are the ones we’re most likely to hold onto forever
A Hopeful Note
Unfortunately, some of us who endured name-calling by a parent keep it alive by using those same derogatory terms on ourselves. For many decades, I had a negative tape running in my head whenever I said something awkward at a party or mentioned something trivial at an office meeting. The tape would say something like this: “You’re so stupid. You shouldn’t have said that. What a loser you are! Everybody thinks you’re a real knucklehead. I hate you.”
In therapy, I was able to connect my self-destructive thoughts and behaviors to my father’s name-calling during childhood. Once I saw that link, I was able to stop being so mean to myself. I began to feel compassion for that girl whose dad did so much damage to her self-esteem with his cruel words. I became determined to treat her kindly because she had already suffered enough.
My therapist recommended that I read Bad Childhood-Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood. It helped me transition from the shame that I felt as a young, helpless victim of verbal abuse into a confidant woman who now feels empowered by her past. It helped me realize that I no longer wanted my dad’s behavior to hold me back from experiencing all the joy that life has to offer. As horrendous as parental name-calling is, it shouldn’t enslave us until the day we die. When we appreciate its serious impact, we have a much better chance of combating its effects and finding peace.