“The problem with verbal abuse is there is no evidence,” Marta shared. She came for help with a long-standing depression.
“What do you mean, lack of evidence?” I asked her.
“When people are physically or sexually abused, it’s concrete and real. But verbal abuse is amorphous. I feel like if I told someone I was verbally abused, they’d think I was just complaining about being yelled at,” Marta explained.
“It’s much more than that,” I validated.
“The problem is no one can see my scars.” She knew intuitively that her depression, anxiety and deep-seated insecurity were wounds that stemmed from the verbal abuse she endured as a child.
“I wish I was beaten,” Marta shared on more than one occasion. “I’d feel more legitimate.”
Her statement was haunting and brought tears to my eyes.
Verbal abuse is so much more than getting scolded. Marta told me that there were many reasons her mother’s tirades were traumatizing:
- The loud volume of her voice
- The shrill tone of her voice
- The dead look in her eyes
- The critical, disdainful and scornful facial expression that made Marta feel hated
- The long duration—sometimes her mother yelled for hours
- The names and insults—you’re spoiled, disgusting and wretched
- The unpredictability of that “flip of the switch” that turned her mother into someone else
- And, perhaps worst of all, the abandonment
Being frequently yelled at changes the mind, brain and body in a multitude of ways including increasing the activity of the amygdala (the emotional brain), increasing stress hormones in the blood stream, increasing muscular tension and more. Being frequently yelled at as children changes how we think and feel about ourselves even after we become adults and leave home. That’s because the brain wires according to our experiences—we literally hear our parents’ voices yelling at us in our heads even when they’re not there.
Attachment and infant-mother research confirms what we all intuitively know: Humans do better when they feel safe and consistently loved, which means, among other things, being treated with respect. What is news to many of us is that we are born with fully matured, hard-wired, core emotions like sadness, fear and anger. And when fear, for example, is repeatedly triggered by a harsh environment, like one where there is a lot of yelling, automatic physical and emotional reactions occur that cause traumatic stress to a child. The stress in their little brains and bodies increases from anything that makes them feel attacked, including loud voices, angry voices, angry eyes, dismissive gestures and more.
Children do better when they are calm. The calmer and more connected the caregiver, the calmer and more secure the child. And the healthier it is for the child's brain and body. Knowing this, here are some things all parents can remember to help young brains develop well, by ensuring our children feel safe and secure.
- Know that children have very real emotional needs that need proper tending. In general, the more these needs are met, the easier it will be for the child to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges.
- Learning about core emotions will help your child successfully manage emotions.
- You can affect your child’s self-esteem by being kind, compassionate and curious about their mind and world.
- When a break in the relationship occurs, as often happens during conflicts, try to repair the emotional connection with your child as soon as possible.
- You can help your child feel safe and secure by allowing them to separate from you and become their own person. Then welcoming them back with love and connection even when you are angry or disappointed in their behaviors.
When you’re a parent, it’s not easy to control your temper or realize when you’ve crossed the line into verbal abuse. There is a slippery slope between being a strict disciplinarian and traumatizing a young brain. A little awareness goes a long way. Being aware of one’s behavior, listening to our tone of voice and choice of words and watching our body language will keep us in check. Little children, who can act tough, defiant or even indifferent to our actions, are still vulnerable to trauma.
Our own childhood experiences—wonderful, horrible and everything in between—need to be remembered and honored. And we can all strive to help ourselves and our families evolve for the better: to increase the best, gentle experiences we received as children and reduce the painful ones. Marta, for example, worked hard to recover from her abuse. She strove to develop compassion for herself and self-soothe her distress, both necessary but challenging parts of healing.
Several years into our work together, Marta came in following a distressing weekend and shared an amazing experience. A fight with her mother had left her reeling: “I told myself, my distress will soon pass and I’ll be okay. I named, validated and felt the sadness in my body as I gave myself compassion. After I spent time with my feelings, I took a walk through the park and looked at nature. I felt better.”
Proud of the way she could now self-soothe, I said, “What a wonderful mother you were to yourself.”
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is the author of It’s Not Always Depression (Random House & Penguin UK), a book which teaches both the general public and psychotherapists about emotions and how to work with them to feel better. She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hendel was also the Mental Health Consultant on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City. For more information and free resources for mental health visit: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/