“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.
“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 confirmed.
“Much more,” she said.
“The problem is no one can see my scars.” She knew intuitively that her depression, anxiety, and deep-seated insecurity were scars that stemmed from the verbal abuse she endured.
“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 traumatized her:
- The loud volume of her voice.
- The shrill tone of her voice.
- The dead look in her eyes.
- The critical, disdainful, and contemptuous facial expression that made Marta feel hated to the core.
- The eviscerating names: 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.
“It is not just that I felt assaulted,” Marta cried, “It’s that when I did something that flipped her switch, my mother left me and was replaced by a monster. That’s exactly what it felt like. I was totally alone.” Tears welled up in Marta’s eyes.
Being frequently yelled at changes the brain and the 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 changes how we think 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 are not there. Marta had to work hard every day to push away the onslaught now coming from inside her mind.
Attachment and infant-mother research confirms what we all intuitively know: that humans do better when they feel safe, which means among other things, being treated with respect. What is news to many of us is that we are born with hard-wired core emotions (sadness, fear, anger, joy, etc.) that cause us physical and emotional reactions to pain and pleasure from the moment we are born. This means we react to anything that feels like an attack, 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 are their children.
The following are some things we can remember to help young brains develop well and help our children feel safe and secure.
- Know that children have very real emotional worlds that need nurturing, so the brain and nervous system wire in the healthiest ways, conducive to becoming calm and confident to meet life’s challenges.
- Learn about core emotions so you can help your child successfully manage emotions.
- Enhance your child’s self-esteem by being kind, compassionate, and curious in their mind and world.
- When a break in the relationship occurs, as often happens during conflicts, repair the connection with your child as soon as possible.
- Help your children feel safe and secure by allowing them to separate from you and become their own people, welcoming them back with love and connection, even when you are angry or disappointed in their behaviors. You can calmly discuss your concerns and use opportunities as teachable moments.
Yelling at children is counter to all of the above, as is hitting and crossing physical/sexual boundaries of any kind.
The last time I saw Marta, she told me she had received upsetting news over the weekend.
Marta said, “I told myself, my distress will soon pass and I’ll be ok. And, then I worked The Change Triangle. I named, validated and felt my sadness in my body as I gave myself compassion. When I had enough, I took a walk through the park. I felt better.”
So proud of the calming way she now spoke to herself I said, “I love how you just acted like your own good mother.”
She smiled and said, “Yeah. It’s a whole new world.”
I smiled and thought that was true. The mother who lived inside her mind used to condemn her with such mean and unhelpful comments as: Serves you right! Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill! or Who cares about you?
The harsh mother inside Marta had mellowed.
As a parent, it is not easy to control one’s temper or realize when we’ve crossed the line into verbal abuse. There is a slippery slope between being a strict disciplinarian and what will traumatize a young brain. A little awareness goes a long way in this case.
Being aware of one’s behavior, listening to one’s tone of voice and choice of words, and watching one’s body language, all help 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 our families evolve: to pay forward more of the best, gentle experiences we received as children than the painful ones.