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Emotional Abuse

The Long-Term, Underappreciated Damage of Verbal Abuse

Harms include depression, aggression, and poor health.

Key points

  • A new review article finds that verbal abuse of children leads to social, emotional, and physical harm.
  • The article recommends classifying verbal abuse as its own type of abuse.
  • Creating routines, recognizing triggers, and managing time well can help parents avoid yelling.
Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock
Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

When out and about, you may have heard parents shouting at their children. In fact, few people make it all the way through parenthood without ever yelling. But a new systematic review finds that regular verbal abuse—including shouting, threatening, belittling, humiliating, and name-calling—has negative consequences for children that can last a lifetime.

The review article, published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect by scholars from England and the U.S., reviewed 166 studies that quantified the effects of verbal abuse on children.

As part of their analysis, the authors define verbal abuse, which often involves hostility, psychological control, intimidation, vulgarity, and humiliation. It is important to note that verbal abuse does not have to include shouting. Adults can threaten and intimidate children and young adults without raising their voices.

The authors found that children who were verbally abused experienced a range of negative consequences throughout their lives—most commonly delinquent behavior, depression, aggression, conduct disorders, substance use, and anger. Other studies linked verbal abuse to depression, abuse perpetration, neurobiological changes, and physical health outcomes including obesity and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Child abuse is defined as “an adult or other caregiver engaging in acts that harm or omit needed care to a child,” the study authors write. Currently, child abuse is classified into four categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. In the current research literature, verbal abuse is considered part of emotional abuse.

This study’s authors make the case that verbal abuse deserves its own category for several reasons. First, data shows that emotional abuse of children is now more common than physical or sexual abuse. The authors also make the case that verbal abuse is more overt and explicit compared to other types of emotional abuse, such as silent treatment and witnessing domestic violence.

“All adults get overloaded sometimes and say things unintentionally,” said Jessica Bondy, founder of the British non-profit organization Words Matter, which funded the systematic review. “We have to work collectively to devise ways to recognize these actions and end childhood verbal abuse by adults so children can flourish.”

The Child Mind Institute, a non-profit dedicated to promoting children’s mental health, offers some tips to help parents avoid yelling:

  • Identify recurring problems. Try to pinpoint a time of day or event that frequently leads to frustration and brainstorm solutions ahead of time.
  • Create routines. Especially with younger kids, a regular routine can help avoid arguments. For example, after dinner, we always play for 30 minutes, take a bath, brush our teeth, read a story, and then go to bed.
  • Consider triggers. Pay attention to times when your child—or even you—may be hungry or overtired.
  • Manage your time. Trying to do too much causes stress, which can lead to frustration and tantrums. Avoid packing too much activity into one time slot or day.
  • Take a break: It’s important to recognize when you’re about to lose your temper so you can step away from the situation and calm yourself before interacting further with your child. Even simply closing your eyes and counting to ten can make a big difference in your reaction to a difficult situation.
  • Own up to your feelings. All parents get frustrated at some point. If you lose your temper, wait until you have calmed down and then model for your kids how to talk about feelings. If you yelled, make sure to apologize.

The take-home message: Verbal abuse is detrimental to children. It's important for parents and caregivers to learn about the negative consequences of verbal abuse, and for public health officials to recognize and address this growing problem.

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