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Many people experience verbal abuse in their lifetimes. Most often, abuse occurs in romantic relationships, between a parent and a child, or at work. One study has shown that in romantic relationships, 12.1% of women and 17.3% of men experience verbal abuse.
Verbal abuse against children is highly understudied and underreported, so the prevalence rates of this type of abuse aren’t well known. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 1 billion children between the ages of 2 and 17 experienced some type of abuse, verbal included.
A report by the RAND Corporation, an American research organization, found that as many as 13.1% of men and 12.4% of women experienced verbal abuse regularly at work. Read on to find out more about verbal abuse, its effects, and how to spot the signs.
What Is Abuse?
"Abuse" is the term used to describe acts or behaviors that are damaging in nature. They are done to purposely cause physical or emotional harm to a person. When a person suffers from abuse, they are mistreated by someone who is looking to benefit in some way from the abusive behavior. There are many forms of abuse, including physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional.
Are All Forms of Abuse Equal?
While many people who have suffered abuse may believe that one form is less damaging than the other, all forms of abuse are wrong and can lead to detrimental consequences for the person being abused.
Verbal Abuse vs. Emotional Abuse
The terms "verbal abuse" and "emotional abuse" are often used interchangeably to describe the same type of abuse. However, even if the two are similar, there are distinct characteristics of each one.
Using language to hurt people
Speaking aggressively or violently
Giving the silent treatment
Verbally discounting a person’s feelings or thoughts
Concealing thoughts or feelings and refusing to engage in healthy conversations
Being habitually argumentative
Denying a person’s feelings and their right to feel them
Using hurtful tactics to emotionally diminish a person
Criticizing or manipulating a person into thinking they deserve the abuse they're receiving
Humiliating a person in public to make them feel shame or embarrassment
Using mind games to control a victim's behaviors, thoughts, or feelings
Isolating someone so they feel alone
Denying, justifying, or making excuses for unacceptable behaviors
Verbal abuse is a form of mental abuse that is designed to undermine a person and how they feel about themselves. Abusers also use this type of abuse to help maintain a level of control or power over the person being abused.
Verbal abuse occurs in many relationships, both personal and professional.
In a Relationship
Domestic verbal abuse occurs when one partner verbally abuses their partner to gain control over them or the relationship. Verbal assaults such as name-calling or hurling insults are a form of verbal abuse.
Verbal and emotional abuse are incredibly common in the United States, and studies have shown that these types of nonphysical abuse are the most common forms of abuse in romantic relationships.
While abuse is largely looked at as something that only happens to women because of the long-held stigma surrounding men and abuse, research has shown that when it comes to verbal abuse, the majority of victims are men.
In young adult relationships, verbal abuse is highly common, with over 50% of people having reported verbal abuse while in a relationship as a young adult. Research shows that as people age, verbal abuse tends to decrease, but it is still a highly common issue.
Verbal abuse in a romantic relationship can severely impact a person’s mental health. Because of this, a person who is constantly verbally abused by their partner may experience:
- Anxiety and depression
- Changes in mood
- Chronic stress
- A lowered self-esteem
- Feelings of guilt or shame stemming from the abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Isolation and withdrawal from their friends and family
- Substance abuse
Because of these changes, every aspect of a person’s life, including their work, schooling, personal relationships, and how they take care of themselves, can all be negatively impacted.
Domestic Abuse Hotline
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse from an intimate partner, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) for assistance. If the situation is an emergency and you are in immediate danger, call 911.
From a Parent
Verbal abuse from a parent is common and is considered to be a form of emotional maltreatment. Like other forms of verbal abuse, it is underlined by a need for control.
When a child is verbally abused by one of their parents, their brain development is affected. Research has shown that changes in the white matter pathways of the brain, which is the area of the brain that helps send messages, occur when children are subjected to verbal abuse.
One study looked at whether verbal affection during childhood from the parent who was verbally abusive or the other parent could help to mitigate the effect of verbal abuse. It found that no matter how much verbal affection the child received, the effects of verbal abuse were still present.
The same study showed that verbal abuse during childhood could cause the same extent of psychological damage as witnessing domestic violence and being sexually abused.
Some long-term consequences of childhood verbal abuse are:
- Impaired social skills
- Impaired cognitive development
- Impaired emotional development
- Feelings of helplessness, aggression, and neuroticism (long-term tendency to be anxious or negative)
- Inability or unwillingness to connect with others
- Poor school performance
- An increased risk for getting involved in illegal activity later on in life
- Low self-esteem
- Psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression
- Substance abuse issues later on in life
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal or self-injury behaviors in adulthood
- Poor physical health in adulthood
- Increased risk of heart disease
- An inability to trust others in adulthood
More than 50% of children who are abused as children also experience abuse in adulthood.
Signs a Child Is Being Verbally Abused at Home
It can be difficult to tell if a child is being verbally abused at home, but common signs include:
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Antisocial behaviors
- A negative self-image voiced by saying things such as, “I’m stupid” or “No one likes me.”
Workplace verbal abuse isn’t as common as verbal abuse in childhood or romantic relationships, but it does still occur. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans have been verbally abused at their workplace.
Being verbally abused at your place of employment can cause extreme stress because not only do you have to be there, but you likely cannot defend yourself in a meaningful way while still being professional. Some forms of verbal abuse at work might include:
- Sabotaging someone else’s work
- Mocking a person or putting them down based on their work performance
Some effects of workplace verbal abuse are:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Feelings of depression and a loss of interest in doing activities that you once enjoyed
- Feeling guilt, shame, or humiliation
- Being obsessed with getting work done even on your days off
- Anxiety surrounding work
- Feeling overwhelmed, defeated, or angry at work
Verbal Abuse Quotes
There are many examples of verbal abuse. Things a person might say if they are being verbally abusive include:
- "You’re stupid."
- "Let me explain it in a way that anyone can understand because you really aren’t getting it."
- "Can’t you do anything right?"
- "I made you what you are and you’d be nothing without me."
- "If you don’t do this, you’re going to regret it."
- "If you weren’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have to act like this."
It can be hard to identify verbal abuse. One reason for this is that some people may have a higher tolerance threshold for this type of abuse. They don’t see being called stupid, for instance, as being that big of a deal, while most people would.
Another is because the abuser may have used manipulation tactics to make the person being abused feel like they are at fault for the abusive treatment. Some signs that you’re being verbally abused include:
Being called a name is a form of verbal abuse. Even if they are not screaming in your face or if they are using a playful tone, name-calling is designed to make you feel bad about yourself. An example of this could be when a parent calls their child stupid after bringing home a poorly graded report card.
When a person goes out of their way to make you seem or feel crazy, they are gaslighting you. An example of this is when you make plans with your partner to meet at a certain time. They show up three hours late, and an argument ensues.
During the argument, they deny that you set the agreed-upon time. By the time the argument ends, you may believe that you were mistaken and you somehow forgot the right time to meet.
Gaslighting is especially harmful because it can lead the abused person to feel as though they can’t trust their own thoughts or judgments.
3) Yelling or Screaming
When someone raises their voice to you, it is a form of verbal abuse designed to make you feel intimidated or scared of what might happen next. The abuser’s main goal is to control you into submitting to what they want.
Criticism can come in many forms. Someone may be direct and blunt with their criticism, such as by saying things like, “Why are you so lazy?”
Other times, criticism can come in the form of a joke. Typically abusers will say something hurtful and try to disguise it as a joke so they can get away with making you feel vulnerable or bad about certain aspects of yourself.
An example of this type of criticism is if an abuser takes an insecurity of yours and changes it into a nickname. They say that it’s a term of endearment, but it is verbal abuse.
5) Shame or Humiliation
When an abuser wants to make you feel bad about yourself in a way that controls you, they will privately or publicly shame or humiliate you. Their main goal is to make you feel bad or ashamed about yourself, the way you look, your intelligence, or any other characteristic you have.
Any type of threat is verbal abuse. If someone threatens you, what they’re really saying is that they want to control and manipulate you and that is how they are going to go about it. Threats are designed to invoke fear in the person being abused so that they will submit to their abuser’s demands.
What's the Difference Between a Fight and Verbal Abuse?
It can be hard to tell the difference between regular disagreeing and verbal abuse. That being said, when normal fighting does occur, there is a level of respect that is still there. When respect is there, signs of verbal abuse such as name-calling or threatening will not be a part of the heated discussion.
What to Do
If you are being abused or are realizing that you may be guilty of some of the signs of verbal abuse, there are things you can do to change your situation.
For people who are being abused, reaching out for help is important. You can contact the National Abuse Hotline or seek out a therapist to help you cope with the abuse and make steps towards exiting the situation.
For those that are dealing with parental abuse, speak to a trusted adult, such as a family member or friend, to help you. At the office, speaking to your human resources department may be a good idea to help prevent further abuse from happening.
Noticing that you are exhibiting signs of verbal abuse can be a scary realization. Seeking the assistance of a trained therapist can help you identify why you respond in such ways and what you can do to change your patterns.
Oftentimes, adults who have abusive tendencies developed them because of childhood patterns of abuse that occurred either to them or in their home. Recognizing that you act in abusive ways is the first step to fixing your behaviors.
A Word From Verywell
Verbal abuse can be hard to spot, but that doesn’t meant that it isn’t as damaging as other forms of abuse. It can cause a person to develop psychiatric and emotional disorders and a decreased level of overall health.
Knowing the signs of verbal abuse can help you recognize them in your personal or professional relationships. It can also help you get the help you need, whether you are being abused or are acting in an abusive manner.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How can you help someone who is going through abuse?
People who are in abusive relationships often ignore the abuse and view their situation as not as bad as it actually is. Because of that, helping someone who is being abused can be difficult. If you want to help a loved one who is subject to abuse, you can offer them a safe place to stay and avoid blaming or shaming them into thinking that staying in an abusive situation is somehow their fault. You can also help them make a safety plan to remove themselves from the abusive situation.
- Can you stop verbal abuse?
Depending on the situation and the abuser, verbal abuse can be managed. In some cases, simply walking away or removing yourself from the conversation will stop the abuse from happening. Refusing to engage with someone who is being abusive can show them that you will not deal with that type of behavior.