Many people define verbal abuse in a very narrow way, such as threatening children or calling their spouse nasty names. These are obvious forms of verbal abuse, but there are others. Basically, verbal abuse is any kind of abusive behavior that’s done through verbal communication. It’s a common way for abusers to get their aggression out on their victims.
Before we talk about the many ways abusers can hurt with words, we need to keep in mind that we’re talking about repetitive behaviors. We all verbally abuse sometimes, but that doesn’t necessarily make us abusers. Verbal abuse makes us feel like we’re constantly being attacked just as much as if we were being frequently hit. That’s one main difference between handling a situation badly (which we can recognize and apologize for later) and abusing (which is a pattern of destructive behavior that most abusers don’t recognize).
We all yell occasionally when we’re angry, but it becomes abusive when it’s frequent. It creates a very unpleasant environment. We feel like we’re in a minefield, nervous about setting off an explosion. If we find ourselves constantly making compromises to (we hope) avoid setting off a verbal attack then that’s probably a red flag for abuse. Yelling is a sign that the abuser has lost control, so it often goes along with other forms of abuse that reflect the same problem such as physical abuse, a Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior pattern, and berating.
Occasional, respectful criticism in an appropriate context is a constructive form of communication. Abusers, however, misuse criticism, often thinking they’re helping the ones they love. Constant criticism makes us feel like we can’t do anything right. It’s like we’re dodging verbal bullets because the words cut into our self-esteem. This isn’t about us being over-sensitive because it has nothing to do with helping us, though abusers are convinced it does. It’s about a form of verbal power being used against us to make the abuser feel more powerful.
Name-calling is an obvious form of verbal abuse when it involves derogatory or otherwise hurtful names like stupid, bitch, and loser. However, it can also be more subtle, like when a parent tells a child “That was stupid” or “You really screwed that up.” We read it as a judgment on who we are, like we’re stupid or we’re screw-ups. Again, this isn’t just us being over-sensitive. Like criticism, our abusers may believe they’re just trying to help us, but in reality, they’re trying to make themselves feel powerful.
Unjust blaming is when we get blamed for doing something or causing our abusers to do something and there’s no truth in it. Some kids are scapegoats and get blamed for nearly everything that goes wrong in the family. This can range from little things like breaking something or making a mess to major things like causing a parent to drink or causing a divorce. Unjust blame creates a pervasive sense of guilt and frustration and confuses us about what real responsibility means.
There are many ways abusers can manipulate, and one way is through their words. Threats are an obvious form of verbal abuse. Parents manipulate their children through fear, and that’s sometimes worse than actually hurting them. Think of a child hearing things like “I’ll throw you out if you don’t do what I say” or “I’ll make you sorry.” The unknown is worse than the known.
Another form of manipulation is known as gaslighting. This usually refers to a pattern of denying things done or said, making us doubt what’s really going on. For instance, I read about a teen whose mother kicked her out of the house. She eventually returned home, and her mother denied having kicked her out, telling her she ran away of her own free will. Gaslighting is done by a certain type of abuser, basically someone who wants to twist reality so that it conforms to what makes them feel safe and in control.
When an abuser consistently does this, we start to second-guess ourselves and wonder if there’s something wrong with us. It can also affect our relationship with other people because it seems we’re constantly making mistakes and apologizing. This instills a more pervasive self-doubt in us where we wonder if we can really trust ourselves to make wise decisions.
Telling Us What to Do
We can understand when parents need to give their young children directions on what to do or how to do something, but when parents constantly do that to their adult children, it’s a form of verbal abuse. This isn’t about them giving us their opinion on what we should do, which is something we all do occasionally to family and friends and is acceptable. We’re talking here about a parent who gives their adult child instructions on nearly every aspect of their life. This kind of thing is disrespectful, degrading, and cuts into our autonomy.
Ridicule is hurtful. Jokes are a subtle way for emotional abusers to hurt us because they seem innocent on the surface. When jokes are at our expense, they undermine our self-esteem. We have the double hurt of being expected to laugh as we’re made to feel like crap. If we protest, we’re told that we need to have a sense of humor.
Abusers may also have a tendency to broadcast our most embarrassing moments. Parents may genuinely think these were “cute” but ignore the fact that we feel mortified. This is true even when the embarrassing moment happened years ago. Everyone deserves the right to have their most painful moments in life quietly forgotten.
Ridicule is a reflection of discomfort on the part of the abuser. They feel uncomfortable about something and shift the discomfort onto you by making you look ridiculous. That gives them back the feeling of control over their emotions and their environment.
I think insults are an under-recognized form of verbal abuse. We tend to brush off insults when we experience or witness them, grumbling to ourselves but not thinking them hurtful enough to take seriously. Insults are condescending remarks that undermine our self-worth. They’re often accompanied by a tone of sarcasm or ridicule. They’re an effective way for an abuser to feel powerful.
When we’re around someone who repeatedly insults us, we may get defensive and see many innocent remarks from others as suspicious. Or we may become fearful of these verbal attacks, holding back on doing the things that seem to bring on an insult. When the insults are unpredictable, as they so often are when abusers are responding to their internal reality and not the reality in front of them, then we end up dodging insults and becoming even more confused about what’s really going on. The insults wear us down and we end up feeling inadequate.
Unresponsiveness is when someone shuts down completely. We try to communicate with them, but they don’t talk to us and may not even look at us. We may not think of this as verbal abuse, but it is because it’s meant to make us feel bad through verbal communication, in this case withholding it. It makes us feel small, like we’re not worthy of receiving even the most basic of courtesies, having our presence acknowledged.
Human communication can only thrive when it flows back and forth. Even arguments can be healthy. That’s not to say that we don’t all need an occasional time out. This helps us avoid saying things we’ll regret later. Abusers who give silent treatments, however, aren’t taking a time out. They withdraw from communication completely and use unresponsiveness as a way to deal with their discomfort in the face of challenges.
Indirect Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse can sometimes be indirect. In other words, when our abusers criticize, insult, unjustly blame, and ridicule us when talking to someone else (another family member, friend, spouse, our own children, etc.), it’s just as abusive as when they make the comments directly to us. We know exactly what they’re trying to say.
Abusers can also manipulate us indirectly through someone else. It’s not uncommon in emotionally abusive families for things to be hidden. The abuser pressures another family member to manipulate their target victim, making the go-between family member a target of abuse as well.
This kind of indirect abuse allows the abuser to avoid hurting us directly while still hurting us. They don’t have to deal with accusations from us about being hurt or being wrong. They can claim they were just having a conversation with someone else or that they were asking someone else for help in managing the situation with us.
We could look at verbal abuse as a specific kind of emotional abuse. We could say that verbal abuse involves words (or no words where words are expected, as in the silent treatment) while other forms of emotional abuse don’t have to. The important thing to remember is that verbal abuse isn’t always obvious.