Parent Relationships and Verbal Abuse
If you’re here because you’re struggling in your relationship with your parent(s), we get it. Even a healthy relationship between parent and child has its ups and downs! Arguments happen, and especially as you start to engage in actively shaping your own identity as a young adult, you’re bound to bump heads with a parent now and again. That can be hard! But it’s normal. If, however, you suspect that you’re more than just “at odds” with your parent, and disagreements commonly devolve into unhealthy situations where emotions run red hot, ice-cold, or both, you may be experiencing emotional abuse.
When we think of abuse, we often think of physical violence because it can be the easiest to identify, but there are a number of ways for an abuser to manipulate and control without ever touching their victims. Verbal abuse is a specific form of emotional abuse, in which parents or partners use their words, or lack thereof, to bully someone. It’s especially dangerous because it can sneak under the radar of anyone on the outside of the situation, hiding in the shadows and remaining a secret for years. Just because nobody can see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t taking a toll on your emotional health and safety.
Kinds of Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse can be sneaky in a couple of ways. First, it’s often ignored, especially if it isn’t accompanied by more physical signs of abuse. Victims, abusers, and bystanders are able to minimize the problem by saying, “It’s only words.” Second, verbal abusers can be smart about when, where, and how they say hurtful things. They may not ever yell or use curse words, especially not in front of witnesses. Or, to someone who doesn’t live with the abuser, it may not always be apparent when certain words and phrases become abusive. That’s why it’s important to familiarize ourselves with common types of verbal abuse. Check out these examples:
Types of Verbal Abuse from Parents:
- Name-calling or mean jokes. This could be anything from a family “nickname” that comments on your weight, academic or athletic ability, or other personal characteristics to curse words uttered in a fit of rage. It can occur in group settings or in one-on-one situations. If you protest, you may be accused of being “too sensitive,” or they may claim they “didn’t mean it.”
- Giving orders or demanding. While many parents understandably instruct their children to do things, there does come a point at which barking orders or expecting unreasonable tasks to be completed is abusive.
- Stonewalling, blocking or diverting. If certain topics of conversation are off-limits, the abuser always changes the subject when you bring something up, or they simply shut you out by way of the silent treatment when they don’t want to deal with you, that’s abusive behavior.
- Constant criticizing, never praising. Excessively judging everything you say or do without ever acknowledging your positive attributes and actions can also be a form of abuse.
- Shaming, blaming, accusing. If there is a problem, is it always your fault or your responsibility to fix it? This is incredibly abusive behavior, especially in a parent-child relationship where the parent should be taking responsibility for the household and for your basic physical and emotional needs.
- Trivializing, discounting, or undermining. When you express a need, a complaint, or even a like or dislike, does your parent make fun of it, act like it’s not a big deal, or tell you that you don’t know what you want? That’s also abusive. These are forms of gaslighting, which is a pretty famous verbal abuse tactic that forces the victim to question their reality.
- Inability to accept disagreement. Healthy relationships are able to handle a fair number of disagreements. It’s totally normal for a parent and child to have different opinions on everything from pizza toppings to politics and still love each other. If your parent can’t tolerate those differences, that’s a sign of a toxic relationship.
- Withholding or passive aggression. If your parent offers statements like, “The dishes are dirty,” or “you got a 78 on your math test,” instead of requests like “Hey, would you help with the dishes?” Or “Hey, can we work on getting that math grade up?” Or if they simply ice you out when the dishes are dirty until you figure out what’s wrong on your own, that’s a passive-aggressive attempt at manipulating you into reading their mind.
- Explosive anger or temper tantrums. Sudden bouts of shouting, cursing, name-calling, etc. are never appropriate.
- Countering or being argumentative. If your parent argues with you just for the sake of arguing, that could be an abusive power play. Rather than giving you space to express yourself, they have to be in control of the conversation.
- Denial. Refusal to accept responsibility for their own words and actions is another form of gaslighting, causing you to wonder whether you’re imagining the abuse. It’s worth noting here that even the best parent makes mistakes and might say something they regret, but what separates that from abuse is their willingness to take responsibility for the mistake and apologize.
- Threats. If your parent says things like, “Don’t do that again, or else ___ will happen,” or “if you don’t want to be called stupid, don’t do stupid things,” that’s threatening language, and that’s abusive behavior.
Effects of Verbal Abuse
Any kind of abuse is very disruptive to healthy brain development and emotional maturity, especially if it happens while you’re young. Even if you have one parent who’s loving and affectionate, or your abusive parent swings back and forth between their “good” and “bad” moods, your brain is responding to and developing according to the abuse it’s receiving. Victims of childhood verbal abuse are likely to develop avoidant or anxious attachment styles, rather than secure ones, which will impact their future relationships forever. This is especially true if the abuse is intentional. While many parents don’t mean to cause harm and may be unaware of the damage their words and actions inflict, those who are purposefully hurting their children are causing, in the end, even greater emotional problems for their kids down the road. No matter what, however, the greatest danger of verbal abuse is that victims, especially children, believe the cruel things that are said to them. You may eventually internalize the abuse to the point of self-hatred, so even when you’ve removed yourself from the abusive situation, you are still living in the shadow of it.
How to Recover From Emotional Abuse
What to Do if You’re Being Abused
- Learn to recognize when it’s happening and call it out. Use your voice to calmly explain to your parent when they’re being abusive. Even if they don’t listen, it’s important for you to name the abuse when it happens, for your own sanity and dignity, as well as a matter of record. In fact, it may not be a bad idea to start keeping a written record of instances of abuse for later. You can use this record in therapy or, if necessary, in court.
- Get space from your parent. If you can, spend as much time away from your parent as you can. Sign up for after-school activities and clubs. Study at friends’ houses. Keep to yourself when you’re at home. Don’t expose yourself to potential abuse if you don’t have to, but don’t stop living your life. You deserve to keep going to school, work, and social events, enjoying your life, etc.
- Tell someone. Don’t let this be a secret. Bearing the burden of a secret like that is bound to make you feel incredibly alone. Isolation never helps a toxic situation, so speak up! You can even reach out to TheHopeLine right now. If you don’t communicate your problems, you may not be able to access the help you need. Especially if you feel unsafe at home, or if you feel that you’re unable to have space from your parent while living with them, talk to a counselor or a trusted adult about whether it’s time to seek other accommodations, even if that means getting the authorities involved.
Healing From Verbal Abuse
If you’ve been a victim of parental verbal abuse, your brain has been trained to believe that you are flawed, powerless, over-sensitive, stupid, ugly, slow, mean, selfish, or whatever the lies are that your parent told you. Whether they called you terrible things outright or convinced you of your worthlessness without ever saying it directly, the marks they’ve left on you emotionally are real. Because abuse of any kind impacts your brain development, the fact that you may be experiencing feelings of self-hatred or other emotional problems is expected. But hear this now: there is hope and healing in store for you! There are ways to begin your healing journey right now, and we’re here to help you, starting now.
If you’re struggling with self-hatred, check out these articles on our site on ways to combat that negative view of yourself and start building an identity based on truth. What is that truth? You were fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the divine Creator, and you are worthy of an abundant life full of love, compassion, and joy.
More articles on moving from self-hatred to self-compassion:
- 6 Ways to Turn Your Self-Hatred Around Through Self-Care
- 5 Ways to Stop Hating You
- 5 Amazing Reasons Why You Matter
And as always, please reach out to TheHopeLine if you’re struggling to figure out how to heal or remove yourself from a verbally abusive situation, or if you’re curious about the abundant life God desires for you.