If you saw a dog being beaten, you’d most likely stop the abuse right then or report it to the police. So why are we mute when we see a parent abusing her or his child verbally? Verbal abuse is more damaging than physical abuse. The wounds go deeper and last longer. The child doesn’t even know that she or he was abused, so there is no way to know that this isn’t “normal.”
There are two different forms of verbal abuse – what is said, and how it is said. What is said can be very obviously verbal abuse. Telling a child that she or he is stupid or worthless or no good is damaging in a very deep way. But a child can also be damaged by otherwise innocent words said in an abusive manner.
Sometimes it isn’t what is said, but how it is said that is the problem. If you speak otherwise loving words but do them in an aggressive manner, you aren’t saying anything loving. Tone is essential. Nothing good is conveyed when you speak to a person in a short, clipped, frustrated manner, or loudly or sharply. The child’s entire way of viewing the world is affected by how she or he is raised. If you raise a child to feel worthless, then it is very hard for that child to grow into a healthy adult. The child has no strong foundation because it has been constantly undermined.
When your child comes up to you to ask for help, do you say “What do you want?” with a tone that really means “How can I help you?”, or do you say it in a way that says “Why are you bothering me, again!?” You are the main teacher for your children. If you teach them through your actions that they don’t matter to you, then you have destroyed their spirit. You have taught them that they are an inconvenience, that they are worthless.
I remember when I first got married and my husband would tell me a story of some problem that he’d had to deal with at work. He would be very angry and would be speaking in a very forceful way while telling me the story. Fortunately I was aware of how this kind of talk affected me, so I told him that I was not the reason for his anger, and that he needed to adjust his tone. His anger at the situation was bleeding onto me, and making me feel like I was part of the problem, that he was angry with me, personally.
But a child can’t do this. A child doesn’t have this sense of perspective. For a parent to speak in a sharp manner all the time to their child is abusive. It is cruel and thoughtless. It is not the child’s fault that they were born and that your days of partying are over. It is not the child’s fault that you were raised in a similar manner.
It is a huge responsibility to be a parent, and sadly there are no classes for it. Somehow our society thinks that just because you have had a child you automatically know how to be a parent. This is simply not true. But we just don’t have a mechanism in place to teach people how to be good parents. We seem to leave it to chance and hope everything works out.
I see parents being abusive to their children all the time where I work, and some are worse than others. You can see that the light is gone from the children’s eyes. Every time certain families come in we brace ourselves for another round of screaming and tears. What can be done? I’ve asked a friend who is a therapist and one who is a schoolteacher. Both say you can’t do anything. That you can’t get involved.
Both say that perhaps somebody else will catch it and do something. But what if that somebody else is thinking the same thing – that somebody else will do something?
So what do we do, wait until the child is totally broken and ends up killing someone? And then we’ll all say, “That was sure some strange family. I thought something was wrong with them. I wonder why nobody did anything.”
I’m writing this because I hope that it speaks to a parent who may recognize herself or himself in this. I hope that this parent realizes that it is normal to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, but not OK to push that on to a child. I hope that this parent admits that she or he needs help and asks for it from someone they trust – a therapist, a minister, a friend.
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. NOT asking is a sign of weakness. Trying to do it all on your own hasn’t worked.