Verbal Abuse in Children: Types and Effects

Disciplining a child is hard work. According to Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, “Discipline is a necessary thing in  life, for certain, and how we engage in it is important in building positive self-esteem and a healthy sense of self in children.” It involves reaching a balance between being an authority figure as well as somebody who loves them unconditionally. However, inadvertently parents may be caught off guard on not so good days and can verbally lash out at others, and this might include his/her child. The offense might sound minimal as compared to any other type of abuse. Oftentimes, parents might also rationalize their behaviors and temper as something out of their control brought about by the everyday stress of taking care of the kids as well as juggling their other responsibilities. Experts negate this frame of mind stating that any abuse is not justifiable.


Types Of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is defined as any aggressive behavior relayed through human communication. According to Eris Huemer, PsyD, “The easiest way to describe verbal abuse is verbal bullying that creates emotional pain and mental anguish in the person it’s being done to.” It includes the following:

Swearing, belittling, insulting and calling names. Phrases like, “You are good for nothing,” “You’re a piece of shit” “Stupid kid.”

Using threats of rejection and/or abandonment. Examples are statements like “I’ll just leave you on the streets.” “I will give you away for adoption.”

Indirect criticisms. Criticizing your child behind his back; it will still sting when he hears it accidentally or through the grapevine.

Blaming.  Instances when parents blurt out: “If I didn’t have you, my life would have been so much better” “You always cause trouble between your siblings.”

Threatening physical harm. Studies show links between verbal and physical aggression. A study conducted by Harvard revealed that parents who yell frequently are more likely to hit and vice versa.

Use of Sarcasm. According to John M Grohol, PsyD, “Sarcasm is simply saying something intended in a mean-spirited, derogatory or unpleasant manner while meaning the exact opposite. Most people who use sarcasm expect that the recipient of the sarcastic message to recognize the contradiction.” Making rude remarks to avoid direct criticism also has the same effect. Children are sensitive and perceptive to understand subtle tones which can be demeaning.

Berating of Spouse. Research shows that children who have witnessed their parents verbally abusing each other are at high risk of developing depression, anxiety, and interpersonal problems. Another fascinating result concluded from this study is the revelation that verbal aggression between parents was more traumatic to the children than physical violence.

The Numbers

The statistics on the incidence of verbal abuse is mixed. According to a survey conducted by the University of New Hampshire, 63 percent of more than 3,000 American parents reported one or more instances of verbal aggression toward children in their household. On the other hand, the Child Protective Services study found out that a mere 6 percent of all the child abuse cases involve emotional abuse which verbal abuse is included.

Effects of Verbal Abuse

Since verbal abuse is painful to determine and rarely caught in the act, it is best to watch out for possible telltale signs of verbal abuse.

Negative self-image. This is the most common effect of verbal abuse. The child may also show withdrawal and depression which is indicative of low self-image.


Self-destructive acts. Look for self-inflicted injuries such as cuts in his inner wrist and thighs or engaging in reckless and impulsive activities.

Antisocial behavior. Verbally abused children demonstrated higher rates of delinquency, interpersonal problems, and physical aggression. Your child might be physically aggressive against other children, always involved in school fights and cruel to animals.

Delayed development. There might be a slowdown in the child’s emotional, physical, social and academic growth.