Why Verbal Abuse can be just as Damaging as Mental Abuse

Parents hit their children with all sorts of things: Fists, hands, belts….the list goes disgustingly on….. and words.

This article is not meant in any way to lessen the horrors of physical abuse. One of the best things I’ve done in my life (at age 5) was to convince a woman that hitting her daughter was not a good idea, and that it would only teach the daughter that might makes right, and that the stronger person can force the weaker person to do things. Those weren’t the lessons she wanted to teach, and she never hit her daughter.

So, yes, parents use implements to hit their children. One implement is words.

There is a saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. This is quite possibly the STUPIDEST saying in the history of the universe. Words. And the absence of words. They can hit, they can hurt. They can even kill. The scars don’t show, and the wounds may not heal. All abuse is under-reported and hidden far too often. But when the scars don’t show, the hiding is easier.

I know a woman. She used to be a girl.

She is a victim of abuse.

She was rarely hit, and never hard, and never prolonged. Physically, that is.

The absence of words. The absence of love can stunt and damage a person in strange and remarkable ways, leaving them damaged in ways that are hard to undo. And this girl’s mother never told any of her kids “I love you”. Not once.

Lesson 1: Tell your children you love them. Tell them more often than they want to hear it. If they already know, it does no harm to remind them. If they don’t already know, it does enormous good.

I know a man. He used to be a boy.

This boy had problems. Well, all kids have problems. This boy’s problems were more severe than some, less severe than others. They made parenting him harder than parenting some other children, and his parents, and especially his mom, did more than some other parents. They gave up things for him. And, of course, they deserve credit for that. She claimed that credit by reminding the man of the trouble the boy was. She exaggerated the credit due by exaggerating the things given up.

Lesson 2: Children aren’t for ‘making points’ . This is, I think, true in all loving relationships. You should not do things for your loved ones so that they will do things for you, or so that they will regard you as ‘good’. That’s not love, that’s business. Do things for your loved one because you love him or her.

This boy grew and, and, as a teen, made some adult friends; people who knew his parents. He told them of his troubles and they told him that those troubles really couldn’t be that bad. His mother was not that bad, she was a wonderful person. He didn’t understand her. Well, there you go. Another door closed.

There was a TV show a long time ago called One Day at a Time. It was a typical sitcom. But in one episode, a teenager tries tries to commit suicide. Her mother says to the psychiatrist “She’s just doing it to get attention” and he says “Why don’t you try giving her some?”

Lesson 3: If someone tells you they are being abused, or hurt, listen Not every tale of abuse will be factually correct. Not every tale will agree with your perceptions of things. But none of the tales can be ignored. Few people will tell such tales lightly, and, if a person does tell such a tale lightly, that’s another kind of problem. And the simple act of being listened to can be enormously helpful.

This boy had problems, and, like all kids with problems, he had those problems pointed out to him by his peers. Kids will do that, every time. And those kids can find the problems, with unerring accuracy. This boy was then told by adults “Ignore them and they will stop”. WRONG. Or, rather, right, but irrelevant. This boy could NOT ignore them. They were a them, and he was only a him.

Lesson 4: Don’t assume abilities your loved one does not have

Eleanor Roosevelt once said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. Sorry, Eleanor. You were wrong. Even saints (and you are close to one, in my book) stumble. Or, perhaps not really wrong. It’s just that some of us are incapable of refusing our consent. I had a teacher back when I was 5. A wonderful woman, Grace Kumar. As five year olds are, we were sometimes rough with each other, verbally and physically. She provided the counterpart to Mrs. Roosevelt’s remark, and here is

Lesson 5: Be gentle. That’s a person you’re playing with

I know a woman. Of course, she was once a girl, but I only knew her as a woman. On her 40th birthday, she received a letter from her mother, here it is, in its entirety

Dear Gail
You are the worst thing that every happened to me. You ruined my life. I wish you were dead.

and that leads to

Lesson 6 Some people should just not be parents
alternate Lesson 6 Don’t be a flaming *

I know some people will read that story and think it horrendous – it is horrendous. But I know some people will then compare their own situation, or a friend’s situation, or a child’s situation, to Gail’s (is that her name? Only I know, and I won’t tell) and say “It’s not as bad as Gail’s”. That leads to a lesson paraphrased from Andrew Vachss – a lawyer for abused children, and a novelist whose books often feature abusers and their victims

Lesson 7 Everyone’s worst is bad enough . The point of abuse, and the ways of healing, do not depend on abuse being ‘bad enough’ to anyone but the person abused. We’re not dealing here with courts of law, but with the ways of affection and love. If you are hurting, you deserve healing; and if you help someone who is hurting, you are doing saintly work.

I know a boy. By now, he’s a man, but I knew him long ago. He was a student of mine at a camp. He worked hard for a month, and, on visiting day, he was grinning a storm about showing his dad all his great work. His father looked at all his papers, poked him in the chest and said “You can do much better than that”. So long smile.

I know many boys and girls told they ‘could do better if they applied themselves’ – this is just the above story, writ small, and leads to

Lesson 8 Everyone is trying as hard as they can . If someone appears not to be trying as hard as you would like, then he or she is incapable of doing so – but capabilities change. People grow. But you can’t make people grow by yelling at them, and nothing grows in a burning building.

Some people will say that there is little to be done about such situations. They will call me a ‘bleeding heart liberal’. I know my heart bleeds when I hear these stories (are some of them my own? Only I know, and I won’t tell). That’s

Lesson 9 If your heart doesn’t bleed, you haven’t got one.

Enough. Unfortunately, I know many other bad stories. But enough. Here’s a different one. This one I will say is mine, with no quibbling. I was a camp counselor at a camp for disturbed kids. Many of the counselors were young. The camp hired a psychologist to come, before camp opened, and talk to us. One woman asked “What if I do something to make it worse?”

He said
“You’re not here for the money. You could make more somewhere else. You’re not here for the hours, cause they are worse than almost anywhere else. You’re not here to party, cause there are better parties other places. You’re here because you love kids. They’ll know.”

And they did.

Bruno Bettelheim (with whom I disagree about a lot) once wrote a book called “Love is not enough”. That leads to

Lesson 10 Love may not be enough, but it’s one hell of a good start

Love one another. Be kind to one another. Try to understand one another.