Dr. Rachell N. Anderson
“Sticks and stones may break my bones (but words will never hurt me)”. We’ve all heard this often quoted statement. Yet we all have some unkind word or phrase from long ago stuck in our craw which dims our little shining light just when we want it to shine.
“You're acting like a baby.” “What are you, stupid?”“How can you be so dumb?” “You little Sh–. Get out of my face!” “Are you deaf? I just told you not to do that!”“You are useless.” “You little liar! God’s going to strike you dead. Well, you get the picture.
I’ve heard these (and worse) words uttered by frustrated parents in grocery stores, restaurants, parks, places where families gather; trying to discipline and control their children. Add sarcasm and the parent’s face snarled with contempt and you’ve got bonafide samples of emotional abuse. Verbal aggression such as yelling and insulting; slamming doors and giving children the silent treatment are examples. Additionally, children who are shamed, humiliated, terrorized, or rejected, are also wounded leaving scars are invisible. Acts of emotional abuse are too numerous to list here but I can assure you one knows it when he or she feels it. The consequences of emotional child abuse, though silent, can be serious and long-term.
Researchers who studied children who were emotionally abused from birth to adulthood found that people who were verbally abused as children grow up to be self-critical adults, prone to depression and anxiety. When parents use hurtful, degrading words, children come to see themselves in those terms, they internalize these words, and spend a lifetime suffering from the impact.
In the preschool years, researchers found these children are angry, uncooperative and loosely attached to their primary caregiver. They are often less creative, less persistence and less enthusiastic than their age mates. They often experienced depression, low cognitive ability, low educational achievement, and poor social skills. This same study found emotionally abused children may experience a lifelong pattern of depression, estrangement, anxiety, low self-esteem, inappropriate or troubled relationships, and lack of empathy.
As teenagers, these children find it difficult to trust people and achieve happiness in relationships. The effects of emotional abuse gets hidden in all sorts of behavioral and mental health labels such as insecurity, poor self esteem, destructive behavior, angry acts such as fire setting or cruelty to animals, withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, and even suicide.
As adults, they may have trouble recognizing and appreciating the needs and feelings of their own children and will emotionally abuse them as well.
In some instances, the effects of emotional abuse are so subtle that the child shows no outward signs but inwardly, self doubt, lack of courage and self blame permeates their internal dialogue. Emotional abuse is a silent epidemic inflicting wounds that leave children forever changed.
Fortunately, most parents do not want to intentionally hurt their children. Without intervention, they simple do what they’ve learned from their parents and caretakers.
What’s a parent to do?
1. Recognizing the impact of their own childhood history is an important first step. Change is possible. When people grow up in verbally charged and emotionally abusive environments, they are likely to heap to use what they’ve learned on their children.
2. Parents need to understand that the way they treat their children has an impact on their children’s behavior. A request (would you please do...) is more effective that criticism (You didn’t do ....). and leaves no scars.
3. When parents allow their stresses to influence how they treat their children, they risk teaching them the same negative behaviors. Is that what you want for your grand kids? No excuse is good enough to be unkind. Vow to break the cycle.
4. You can’t teach children what you haven’t learned. When you have strong emotions that make you want to lash out, count to 10 or 100 if you have to. The feelings will subside. They all do if you don’t act on them.
5. It is necessary to set limits with children but repeated disregard for their feelings is a solution that causes more problems.
Children are dependent on their parents, teachers and other adults to supply their needs. Children are vulnerable to these individuals. When children are abused by adults they learns not to trust them. When the abuse continues, mistrust is generalized to others making it difficult to function in school, employment and in life.
These invisible scars strips life of its joy. Ending emotional abuse makes it possible to have better citizens and a better world.
© Rachell N. Anderson, Psy. D. February 21, 2013
Dr. Rachell Anderson is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, a Professor Emerita and author. She taught at the University of Illinois and ran a private Clinical in Springfield, Illinois for more than 40 years. She now lives and writes in Tunica, Mississippi. Check out her website at WWW.drrachellanderson.com for more articles and books.