Emotional Abuse-Talk to Your Child Without Harming Them

What you say to your child is important.
Here are some tips to assure that what you say won’t damage your child

Sticks and stones will break my bones,
But names will never hurt me.

Many of us who are now parents understand that this children’s rhyme does not provide true comfort, and that the words of playmates DID hurt us.

Words can hurt children, and the damage inflicted on a child by the thoughtless remarks of a parent or other adult can torment a child–for their lifetime.

In fact, emotional abuse, though it is often ignored, can be far more devastating than the physical abuse that so often captures media headlines.

The emotional abuse of harsh words, spoken thoughtlessly, can lead a child feeling berated, belittled, demoralized. The impact this has on a child’s emotional development is insidious. A child’s spirit can be destroyed, and they may lose any positive sense of self. Emotional abuse destroy’s a child’s ability to feel loveable, to love himself or herself, and has a negative effect on a child’s ability to care for and get along with others. Emotional abuse increases self-destructive and antisocial behavior. Emotional abuse has been linked to eating disorders, promiscuity and suicide.

None of us is perfect, and many of us can recall a time when we’ve lost our self-control, and said something hurtful and demoralizing to our children, over something minor. We might say things like: “You clumsy idiot! You can’t do anything right!”

When words like these are repeated often enough, the child’s sense of self-esteem plummets and he or she begins to agree with his parents’ assessment of him: he or she really is dumb, a jerk, an idiot, a moron. The child begins to learn that love is not without conditions. And since it seems impossible to meet his or her parent’s expectations, the child becomes satisfied with settling for the “loser” role.

In too many homes today, the lights are on but no one is there. People are home but not home. Inattentive and verbally abusive parents are producing children who seem normal but are not what they should be, what they could have been.

There are studies that demonstrate that this abusive, humiliating and demeaning parenting behavior is transmitted from generation to generation, meaning that adults who had abusive parents tend to parent their own children the same way. This pattern will continue until a parent is willing to change their behaviors, change the dynamics, and find a way to interact differently with their own children. They must be willing to see and acknowledge that they are saying and doing to their children.

To change this pattern, treatment often requires treating the parent and the child, helping the parent feel respected and empowered, and allowing them to change the ways they respond to their child.
The problem of verbal abuse is REAL, and COMMON, but difficult to document, and, therefore, difficult to intervene to prevent. Certain stressors can increase the problem of verbal abuse, job loss, marital problems, financial concerns. Often, adults attempt to cope with these stressors using alcohol and other drugs, but this tends to make matters worse. Parents then lose their inhibitions, and may say terrible things to their children that they later regret.

How can you be sure your words build up rather than destroy your children?

† Guard your vocabulary. There are some words that people in a family should never say to each other. Words like stupid, dummy, jerk, idiot, worthless and freak have no place between parents and their children.

† Avoid absolute statements such as “You never . . . ” Or “You always . . . ” Have a sense of good manners with your family. This doesn’t mean that you must avoid all conflict or that you can’t set limits.

† Separate the child’s actions from the child. Instead of responding to a tantrum with a barrage of abusive language, let him know that you love him — but not his actions, which are unacceptable.

† When things happen that can set off an explosion, take time out. Wait. And then wait some more. When you hold your tongue until the heat of the moment has passed, it’s a lot easier to respond with love rather than anger.

† Be available. Be willing to stop and peek in on your child’s world. He or she will feel more valuable because of it. Don’t start interrogating the minute the child walks in the door.

Wait until you’re relaxed and instead of probing about his day, why not share your day? Instead of accusing, compliment. Instead of insisting, be silent.

† Active listening refers to a kind of listening and a response that does not judge, ridicule or order. And the more we listen without judging, the more we help our children to accept their feelings, we improve their problem-solving ability and increase their willingness to listen to us.

† Teach by example. Let your kids hear you acknowledge your mistakes. Risk being humble. Dare to say, “I’m sorry” to your children when appropriate. Apologizing reveals that the truth is larger than your ego and their feelings are more important than your pride.

If you can accept yourself in spite of your limitations, all the while working to be the best you can be, you’ve gone a long way to help your kids value themselves.

Based on the work of Jean Guarino, free-lance writer.