5 Reasons Parental Verbal Abuse Is Far More Damaging Than We Thought

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

  1. It can distance a child from both parents.
  2. It can crush a youngster’s self-image.
  3. It can break down communication.
  4. It can change a child’s brain structure.
  5. 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.

Contrary to popular belief, name-calling and other forms of verbal mistreatment can be as detrimental as physical and sexual abuse.

Contrary to popular belief, name-calling and other forms of verbal mistreatment can be as detrimental as physical and sexual abuse.

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.


14 comments

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  2. For me, a memorable line in Childhood Disrupted (pg.24) revealed: “Well-meaning and loving parents can unintentionally do harm to a child if they are not well informed about human development …”

    Sure, people know not to yell when, for instance, a baby is sleeping in the next room; but do they know about the intricacies of why not?

    For example, what percentage of procreative adults specifically realize that, since it cannot fight or flight, a baby stuck in a crib on its back hearing parental discord in the next room can only “move into a third neurological state, known as a ‘freeze’ state … This freeze state is a trauma state” (pg.123). This causes its brain to improperly develop; and if allowed to continue, it’s the helpless infant’s starting point towards a childhood, adolescence and (in particular) adulthood in which its brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammation-promoting stress hormones and chemicals, even in non-stressful daily routines.

    How many potential parents are aware it’s the unpredictability of a stressor, and not the intensity, that does the most harm?
    When the stressor “is completely predictable, even if it is more traumatic—such as giving a [laboratory] rat a regularly scheduled foot shock accompanied by a sharp, loud sound—the stress does not create these exact same [negative] brain changes.” (pg.42)

    Also, how many of us are aware that, since young children completely rely on their parents for protection and sustenance, they will understandably stress over having their parents angry at them for prolonged periods of time?

    I know I didn’t know any of this until I researched the topic for the specifics.

    Yet, general society continues to misguidedly perceive and therefore practice human reproductive rights as though we’ll somehow, in blind anticipation, be innately inclined to sufficiently understand and appropriately nurture our children’s naturally developing minds and needs.

    A psychologically sound as well as a physically healthy future should be all children’s foremost right—especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter—and therefore basic child development science and rearing should be learned long before the average person has their first child.

    By not teaching this to high school students, is it not as though societally we’re implying that anyone can comfortably enough go forth with unconditionally bearing children with whatever minute amount, if any at all, of such vital knowledge they happen to have acquired over time?

    Such curriculum would enable our young people to understand (even if just the basics) how the child’s mind develops. Therefore, they could understand how (with curriculum examples) a seemingly-minute yet consequential flaw in rearing/environment, perhaps something commonly practised/experienced, can have negative lasting effects on the child’s sponge-like brain/psyche.

    Yes, such curriculum can sound invasive, especially to parents distrustful of the public education system, but I really believe it’s in our future generations’ best interests.

    “It has been said that if child abuse and neglect were to disappear today, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would shrink to the size of a pamphlet in two generations, and the prisons would empty. Or, as Bernie Siegel, MD, puts it, quite simply, after half a century of practicing medicine, ‘I have become convinced that our number-one public health problem is our childhood’.” (pg.228)

    [Frank Sterle Jr.]

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    • Wow. Quite a summary! I really love that you researched on this topic, I basically think that parents are ignorant of some little details in parenting. Including this to the curriculum is a fantastic idea but the kids are already stuffed up with so Much to learn. I think it should be taught by parents to their kids and in churches and religious centers as well. The story behind the failure of the parenting system is the inability to understand the do’s and the dont. I quite appreciate your comment, its really so detailed and I am sure I learnt a few or more. I’m really glad you spent time on My blog and to comment too. Hope to receive more detailed comments and contributions from you. Thank you❤

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  3. You are quite welcome.

    High school child development science curriculum, if nothing else, might give students the valuable information/idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.

    I’m convinced it’s in everyone’s best interests.

    A 2007 study (“The Science of Early Childhood Development”) found and reported that:
    “The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. Stated simply, today’s children will become tomorrow’s citizens, workers, and parents. When we invest wisely in children and families, the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship. When we fail to provide children with what they need to build a strong foundation for healthy and productive lives, we put our future prosperity and security at risk …

    “All aspects of adult human capital, from work force skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during childhood, beginning at birth … The basic principles of neuroscience and the process of human skill formation indicate that early intervention for the most vulnerable children will generate the greatest payback.”

    While I appreciate the study’s initiative, it’s still for me a disappointing revelation as to our collective humanity when the report’s author feels compelled to repeatedly refer to living, breathing and often enough suffering human beings as a well-returning ‘investment’ and ‘human capital’ in an attempt to convince money-minded society that it’s in our own best fiscal interest to fund early-life programs that result in lowered incidence of unhealthy, dysfunctional child development.
    ________

    “This is the most important job we have to do as humans and as citizens … If we offer classes in auto mechanics and civics, why not parenting? A lot of what happens to children that’s bad derives from ignorance … Parents go by folklore, or by what they’ve heard, or by their instincts, all of which can be very wrong.”
    —Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

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