Verbal Abuse and Children
by Patricia Evans


Many questions surround the issue of children and verbal abuse. For example:

* How can I encourage high self-esteem in my child?
* What do I say to a child who has experienced verbal abuse from another child or from an adult?
* What do I say to my child when he [she] calls me names?
* How can my child best handle verbal abuse from peers?
* What do I say to my child if I have left a relationship in which I experienced verbal abuse?
* How can I keep myself separate when I share care of my child with my former spouse?

There are no perfect answers to these questions. The answers presented here are suggestions -- models of effective ways to communicate that are meant to assist you in the process of honoring, respecting, and protecting your child from the emotional and mental harm of verbal abuse.

Encouraging Your Child's Self-Esteem
When a parent faces a stressful situation and their child needs attention, the urgencies of the moment can invite a hasty response. Even when they have time to think, a parent may overlook obvious solutions or actions because his or her mind is in turmoil.

For this reason, it is helpful for parents to remind themselves of the need to treat their child with goodwill and respect, even when they feel stressed.

When respect becomes the context for what you say, what you say is more likely to convey respect.

Courses in parenting are given in most cities, and many books on raising children are available. Sometimes it is difficult to choose between different philosophies. When you choose books on parenting and child raising, I believe the most essential criterion is that they foster respect for the child. If you give your children love and attention, are empathetic to their feelings, and are honest with them and encourage their independence, you will, in most cases, see them grow up to be loving, attentive, empathetic, honest, and independent adults.

Sometimes peer pressure or abuse from outside the home and so forth can influence the child to act out in undesirable ways. Don't be quick to blame yourself. You can only do your best. When in doubt, seek outside help through parenting classes, counselors, and/or other parents you admire.

Communicating Confidence
I believe that one of the most effective ways to impart confidence is to allow the child to meet his or her own needs as soon as the child shows an ability to do so. Parents can say:

* Do you want to try using this spoon yourself?
* I'll wait while you tie your shoes.
* Are you ready to make your own peanut butter sandwich?
* Here is the way to use the washer.

Communicating Appreciation
Children respond to appreciation. They are born good, curious, and spontaneous. Every child has unique talents and interests.

As a parent, your job is to give your child the attention he or she needs. Noticing what the child likes -- music, dancing, running, bright colors, quiet times, sports, and so on -- and introducing and fostering the child's interests, even though they are not your own, brings forth from the child the child's own unique self. Following are ways of expressing appreciation:

* What a beautiful picture.
* Tell me about the book you like best.
* It looks like you took extra time to make that.
* Do you need some extra time to finish that?
* I really appreciate your being quiet and waiting until I finished talking.

Communicating Limits
Good communication includes communicating limits to your child. Children feel safe and cared for when parents set limits for them. When they become adults, they set their own limits. They are best able to do this when they learn how during their childhood.

You can set limits for your child while still validating his or her feelings. For instance, it is natural for children to want to stay up past bedtime or to want things they can't have, but there are limits to their endurance and to the number and kinds of possessions they can have. You, as the parent, should encourage them to realize this. For example:

* I hear you. You want to stay up, but now it's bedtime for five-year-olds. After you're ready, we'll read a story.
* I can see that you want to watch that on TV, but that's not a kids' show. Let's pick out something else.
* That's not okay.
* When you're screaming I can't hear you. Let me hear your words.
* Let's talk about it.
* Tell me what you want.
* No, I'm not buying any toys today.
* I'd like you to have that, too, but I don't have the money for it.

Communicating Choices
Whenever possible, children should be given the opportunity to choose. It takes extra effort on the part of the parent -- it's easier to say, "You're wearing this, like it or not." But if your child learns early on that she or he can make choices and take responsibility for them, your child will be better able to make good choices in life. Following are some examples of ways that you can present your child with the opportunity to make choices:

* Do you want corn or peas?
* Both your white top and your yellow top look nice with these pants -- which do you want to wear?
* This is the school menu. Do you want to buy lunch or take your own?
* Is there anything you want to do this school year, like sports or the photography club?
* Who would you like to invite to your birthday party?

When Children Hear Verbal Abuse
Sometimes, even while trying to protect a child, a parent may lose sight of just how to respect the child's feelings. For example, a woman wrote, "In the past I had a grandfather who yelled at me and berated me. My own parents told me to not let Grandpa bother me -- to just ignore him. I was really happy when he passed away"

In a situation like this, the child needs to hear, "What he just did [said] is not okay. Come with me while I tell him." The abuser needs to hear, "What you said to Mary [or John] is not okay. I really don't want her [him] to hear this kind of talk again."

If you are abused for speaking up, take yourself and your child out of harm's way, again acknowledging your child's feelings ("I know it hurts when he talks mean") and reiterating to your child the fact that that kind of talk is not okay.

If your child is yelled at or put down in any way, she or he needs your support. Sometimes a parent may inadvertently teach a child to put up with abuse. It is sometimes helpful to ask yourself, "Is there anything in what I've said that minimizes the abuse?"

If a child is told by a parent, "She [he] didn't mean that," the child's experience is invalidated and his or her pain discounted. The abuse is minimized and the child is taught to tolerate it.

Minimizing abuse is something most people are taught. To say, "Forget it. He was just having a bad day" may seem like a way to make the pain go away, but it just leaves the hurt inside. And it's crazymaking. (Does having a bad day make abuse okay?)

Acknowledging Your Child's Feelings
When you acknowledge your child's feelings and respond to verbal abuse, you validate the child's experience. And you are the all-sympathetic witness. In this way you teach your child appropriate responses to verbal abuse and help your child to honor his or her own feelings.

On the other hand, teaching your child to pretend that words don't hurt (something males especially are taught) doesn't do anything good for the child. It even makes children doubt themselves.

Depending on your child's age and to whom she or he needs to respond, your child needs to learn appropriate responses to verbal abuse such as those covered in this book. Even an older child needs emotional support to respond to an adult who verbally abuses. "I'll stand by you" may be all the child needs to hear.

Children learn to abuse from adults and from each other. One of the most effective responses a child can make to a peer who puts him [her] down is to say, "That's what YOU say," with a strong emphasis on "you."

This response usually startles the other child and implies "I don't buy it. You said it. You are responsible for what you say."

Sometimes a child is verbally abused while visiting a parent after separation or divorce. I recently talked with a woman whose son would come back from visiting his father appearing very upset. When asked what was wrong, his standard reply would be, "If I tell you, even if you say you won't tell, he'll find out." Clearly, this is a serious problem. The child is suffering and feels too threatened to confide the incident.

If the parent cannot gain the child's confidence, outside intervention -- a family friend, relative, or counselor who could become the child's confidant -- would be of real value.

To find out what the American Acadamy of Pediatrics says about children and verbal abuse go to http://www.aap.org. Then search: Verbal Abuse as well as psychological maltreatment.

Letter to An Abused Mother of An Abused Child
Contributed by a reader of
The Verbally Abusive Relationship

You can not allow anyone abusive to care for your children! I don't care who they are, how they are related and what they will say about it. Abusive people hurt children and there is NO excuse that will ever make it okay. At this terrible point in your family life, I would investigate all my options with every bit of energy I could muster. I'd get the women's shelter to tell me about each and every program that is available for woman in your circumstance and I wouldn't stop looking until I found someone who could help me!!!

You are alone in your recognition of the damage being done to your kids. You are the healthiest person in the group and it falls on your shoulders to find a way to get help. I know this is scary and very hard, but the welfare of your children depends on the actions you take now.

A relative of mine was abusive. During her last visit here she was abusive to our kids a couple times. She has a way of blaming the child and having no tolerance for emotional upsets. As you well know, there are times when kids are weepy or short tempered and it's frustrating but you get through it.

This relative encouraged my son to join her in ridiculing my 5 year old for still having an occasional bottle. They were calling her a "baby" and she was crying. I quickly comforted her and my relative scoffed at me and told me I was encouraging her to remain a baby by coddling her. She told me, "She’s ridiculous!" Well I told her in a calm matter of fact way that a rule in our house is that we don't call names NO MATTER WHAT. She argued against this, of course, so I simply repeated myself. I won't have her teaching my kids to feel ashamed and afraid of who they are because she thinks they should be different from how they are.

I didn't even try to explain that name calling is hurtful and teaches kids nothing constructive. I did explain to my child that when this woman was little people called her names and she never learned that it isn't okay. I wanted to explain it somehow. I guess my point here is that folks who abuse aren't going to change overnight. And, the pain they cause us and our kids is real. Your husband is helping to perpetuate abuse and is abusing both you and the kids by not opening his eyes to what is going on in his home and what he himself says and does. It would be good to start to get resources, information, support.

In this mess someone has to have the welfare of the kids in mind and that someone is YOU!!! There are resources. There must be a way.

To find out what the American Association of Pediatrics has to say about verbal abuse of children click here.