Psychological abuse is a dark topic that most of us would rather avoid. But shining a mental light on it will help you parent effectively, regardless of whether you’ve crossed a line with your kids in the past or are likely to do so in the future.
So what do you picture? Spittle flying and a child shrinking in upon themselves? The truth is that emotional abuse can be more subtle, with much of it occurring outside the frame of that mental image. With the help of two experts, we isolated 13 modes of verbal abuse that fall under three general umbrellas: focusing on character rather than behavior, prioritizing intimidation and control over connection, and choosing punishment rather than discipline.
“I don’t think somebody plops down and goes, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to call my kids stupid and lazy,’” said psychologist Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D., who has treated thousands of children and families as the founder and managing director of The Child & Family Therapy Center at Lowry in Denver. It’s usually automatic, unthinking. Maybe you talk to your kids the way you were spoken to as a child, or maybe your filter has disintegrated in the flames of overwhelm. In most circumstances, Ziegler said, “Parents are not doing this to be abusive.” And it’s important to keep in mind that good parents have bad moments.
At the same time, too many bad moments leave kids more predisposed to behavior problems, mental health issues (including obsessive-compulsive disorder, dissociation, PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation), and — as adults — chronic illness, heart issues, and even difficulty connecting with their own children. That’s true not just when a child is the target of verbal abuse, but also when they witness a sibling’s mistreatment. Attempts to repair after losing it with your kids are absolutely the right thing to do, but, Dr. Martin Teicher, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said, research indicates that “you cannot make up for verbally aggressive parenting by being verbally affectionate.” Few realize that verbal abuse is “one of the very most potent forms of maltreatment,” Teicher said. Its effects can be on par with those of extra-familiar sexual abuse in terms of depression and anxiety, and there’s some indication in his research and that of others that emotional maltreatment may be even more closely associated with psychological distress than physical abuse.
The good news? Though maltreatment impacts kids differently at different ages, researchers have identified a “dose-response relationship” between exposure and harm. Translation: Stopping these 13 behaviors now will help.
When doctors and researchers try to suss out childhood maltreatment, they often start by asking about insults, particularly statements that make one feel incapable or worthless. Think, “You’re stupid,” Teicher said. When therapists talk to adult clients and conduct surveys, they find that kids hold onto “things like that, that cut to the quick,” ruminating over them well into their adolescent and adult years.
Calling your kid a brat or a screw-up may not seem like a big deal, but these labels, Teicher said, “wind up as voices inside your head or the monkey on your back saying, ‘You can’t do this. You’re stupid. You’re always going to be a failure.’” Ziegler said this type of internalization can translate to surrender: “Like, ‘If I am that in your eyes, then I guess I have permission to act like that, to really go there.’” Parents who insult their kids also send a dangerous message: It’s unsafe to rely on them for caregiving. Children’s ability to depend on others and ask for help thus takes a hit right alongside their self-esteem.
So what’s the solution? The obvious answer is to just knock it off, but that advice works for pretty much no one. Sometimes name-calling happens when you project unconscious hostile feelings onto your kid. In other words, you think internal distress is coming from the outside, and you lash out at what feels like the source. Sometimes paranoia is to blame. Vulnerable narcissism is another common culprit. Only therapy has been shown to work for helping parents sort out where tendencies like these come from and how to overcome them. That said, some tips can help those who only occasionally name-call. In calm moments, try asking yourself, “What is the voice I want in my child’s head?” And then, Ziegler said, when you’re fired up, instead of saying, “You are lazy,” say, “I’m concerned that you haven’t done your chores today.” The goal is to get rid of labels and instead describe concerns. Then you’re talking about actions, not character. What I did, not who I am. “It’s processed very, very differently,” she said.
2. Using “you always” and “you never”
Even when a parent starts off on the right track with “it’s frustrating for me that you didn’t take the garbage out,” sometimes, Ziegler said, “the very next thing they say is, ‘See? You always forget. I always have to remind you.’ And then they start rolling.”
“You always” and “you never” can have the same psychological effect on motivation, self-esteem, and well-being as name-calling. If I always suck and I never do things right, why bother trying? Kids wind up with a “fixed mindset,” something that’s been tied to everything from unhappiness to lower academic performance. Instead, Ziegler explained, “You want to inspire your child that they can grow, that they can change.” If you notice an undesirable pattern in your kid’s behavior, lead with curiosity. She recommended the following phrasing: “I’m wondering if you’ve noticed ….”
But here, too, it’s hard for a parent’s behavior to change without introspection. Ask, “Why do I see things in black and white? During stressful moments, why do I assume the worst in people?”
Deflecting (a.k.a. diversion) is basically bringing up unrelated issues or past offenses during an argument. Let’s say your child comes to you and says, “Mom, it hurt my feelings when you called me a sloth because I never help out.” A parent’s first instinct might be to say, “Well, you also borrowed my shirt without asking last week. You have no respect for anyone or anything.” Ziegler explained what’s going on with that parent’s subconscious: “I’m just going to bring something up—that I’m going to say is somewhat related, but really is offtrack—so we can stop focusing on the fact that I said this terrible thing to you this morning.”
When you load a conversation with historical transgressions, a couple things happen. First, you’re fanning the flames of your own anger, causing it to swell. Deflecting also backfires by not only preventing your kid from having the clean slate necessary for a growth mindset, but also alienating them. Who wants to spend time with a person who constantly reminds them of the worst things they’ve ever done?
4. Other negative character generalizations
Other negative generalizations about your child’s character or worth include counterfactuals and comparisons. Teicher said some of the most abusive statements are “telling them you wish they were never born or that [your] life would have been so much better if they were never born. Or saying, ‘You’re never going to be as good as your brother or your cousin.’” Or, “you’ll turn out just like your deadbeat dad.”
During intense moments, parents who generalize about character tend to see their children as all good or all bad. That’s another thing therapy can address. In the meantime, try to muddy those waters by focusing on your child’s strengths. Strength-based parenting is a whole thing, but the gist is that every strength (e.g., persistence) has a flip-side (e.g., pestering) and most things that look like fatal flaws (e.g., vanity) can be reconceptualized and tapped as a strength (e.g., appreciation of beauty). “Being a strength-based parent is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people, but it works wonders,” Ziegler said.
Though the term “gaslighting” has been around for the better part of a century, its use has skyrocketed in recent years. Still, not everyone is familiar with it. Ziegler explained, “Gaslighting is a type of mental manipulation, where a person makes someone else question their sanity, their decisions, their recollection of an event, even their own reality.” If a parent is gaslighting their child, she said, “That’s a pretty huge red flag.”
Common examples include “I didn’t say that” and “I didn’t shove you; I just moved you out of the way.” Like deflection, gaslighting can be a way to dodge a mea culpa. Let’s say I called my kid “a disrespectful ingrate.” They said it hurt their feelings. If I reply, “You’re just always so sensitive,” Ziegler said, “that would be an example of gaslighting.” She thinks it often comes from a parent fearing a loss of authority. But validating your child’s feelings and apologizing can actually increase your pull with them.
You can also ask why you feel the need to demonstrate that you hold all the power and your actions aren’t to be questioned. Where is that coming from? Could you be projecting your shame onto those around you, giving others a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness in order to have company feeling that way?
6. Condescension and belittling
In this same vein, being condescending, “really is a hallmark of needing to be in control and to actually exert your power in the form of shaming your child,” Ziegler said. Your subconscious goal “essentially is to make … yourself look quicker, brighter, and smarter.” It hurts them and undermines the parent-child relationship. “If you are sarcastic, if you are condescending, if you trivialize their experiences, kids are not going to talk to you about hard things … because there’s not safety in a relationship that’s like that.”
7. Blaming and shaming
When Teicher and his colleagues assess people for childhood maltreatment, they also ask how often their parent blamed them for things, scolded them, ridiculed or humiliated them in front of others, criticized them, and made them “feel as though you were incapable or worthless.”
“Discipline in and of itself is a good thing,” Ziegler said, “Your challenge is to be able to do that in a way … that doesn’t make them feel bad about themselves.” Constant reprimands and accusations pile up, diminishing a child’s self-construct and, often, their potential to live a fulfilling life.
She said, “When you engage in any one of these gaslighting kinds of styles of parenting for long enough — not once in a blue moon, but consistently — what’s going to happen is, when you are told it enough, you believe it.”
8. Frequent yelling
Also on Teicher’s list are “raise her/his voice with you,” “scream at you for no apparent reason,” and “yell at you.” We’re not talking about kind or neutral words in a booming baritone, and we’re not talking about a one-off explosion.
Ziegler said, “Every family I work with at some point says, ‘Yeah, I really lost it, and I yelled. It wasn’t my finest moment.” That’s not abuse. But berating is. Creating a threatening environment is. Frequency is. And not just for the obvious reasons. In “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent,” Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., wrote, “The more you lose it with your kids, the stronger and more connected your ‘lose it’ neuronal pathways will become, allowing your brain to freak out more quickly and easily in the future.”
That’s a problem because, as Ziegler put it, “All the research shows that yelling doesn’t work as an ongoing parenting strategy…. Yelling equals fear, and fear is the opposite of love.”
She urges parents to get heard in other ways. “Learn to change your tone, learn how to even change your face and your body language — not to be intimidating, to be serious.”
Parents who yell often have trouble regulating their own emotions; building “distress tolerance” resources can change that. The underlying problem can really just be a lack of tools: the ability to understand their own triggers, the ability to take space when they need it, and more. Naumburg’s easy-to-digest book contains several additional strategies for remedying that situation.
9. Intimidation and invasion of personal space
When Ziegler first said infrequent yelling isn’t abusive, she checked herself: “I mean, I guess if you did it one time but you’re in their face, and you’re trying to intimidate them, that’s different.” She said parents tend to forget how big they seem and how vulnerable kids feel. “Think about your height, think about your weight, think about the depth of your voice.” Even if you’re now the same physical size as your teen, your past (and current) parental power makes you loom large in their estimation. If you use your proximity to get what you want, by hovering over them or backing them up against a wall, “that’s bullying type behavior,” Ziegler said.
Find another way. As Naumburg put it, when you’re triggered, “You have two choices: You can either lose it or do Literally Anything Else.”
Another common strategy to control and intimidate is getting your target alone. That looks like waiting for an older sibling to get out of the car before ripping into your youngest or insisting on getting someone on the phone, off speaker, to berate them one-on-one. “If you find that you behave in a different way whether there is another adult around or not,” Ziegler said, “then it might be a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it.”
11. Withholding affection
An academic paper offered a summary of what it means to live in a controlling environment: “[T]he person is pressured to think, act, or feel a certain way.” We’ve already covered “[d]ismissing, minimizing, and invalidating another person’s feelings and ideas, criticising and inducing guilt.” But there’s another piece to it: “creating an environment in which acceptance and love are contingent on the other person’s behavior.”
The other term for emotional withholding is “avoidant abuse,” and it basically looks like running hot and cold — warm so long as your kid does what they’re asked or expresses concordant opinions but icy (think the cold shoulder and the silent treatment) when discrepancies arise. Children end up destabilized, believing their parent’s regard — and their own worth — is conditional.
12. Swearing at
Swearing around your kids is very different than swearing at your kids. Kids know that cursing is often associated with anger, frustration and disapproval. Ask them, and they’ll say, “It’s bad.” Swearing at them takes all those negative associations and dumps them on the kid. To them it can feel like another way to say, “You’re bad.” That’s likely why it’s on Teicher’s list.
Most of us understand that threatening to harm your kid physically is wrong, but not all parents know that threatening non-physical harm is also abusive. If you find yourself promising — if they won’t do things your way — to call the cops on your kid, stop paying their school tuition, put their father in jail, or move them away from their friends, stop. Just stop. For alternatives, Google the phrases “warnings not threats parenting” and “parenting logical and natural consequences.”
Ziegler sees commonalities in these 13 behaviors. “One of them is being pain-triggered, being triggered to be angry, and not slowing down enough to think about what you’re trying to say.”
But it’s important to keep in mind that although this list is long, it’s not comprehensive, and other forms of psychological abuse aren’t as in-the-heat-of-the-moment. For example, another total mind-f**k is laying traps or creating scenarios designed to test how much your kid loves you. While you’re at it, watch out for “non-verbal emotional abuse,” which is characterized by, among other things, a parent being very difficult to please or causing a minor to prematurely shoulder adult responsibilities (a.k.a., “parentification“).
If you realize you do any of these things, Ziegler said you can share your personal or cultural history with your child: “Gosh, I realized what I’ve been saying and doing to you for years, and I think I was also raised that way, and I thought that was acceptable, and I now realize it’s not.” Try to connect in unrelated ways, too (“Just ask them: ‘What would you like to do?’”), because a strong bond is better than control for your kid and for your bottom line. The more connected your child feels, the better alternative discipline strategies, like a tone shift, will work, and the less you’ll feel you need intimidation and punishment to create the home life you want.
She mentioned one last overarching principle: consistency. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, gosh, I read this article … I’m going to stop doing this one thing, but I’m still going to do nine other things.” Your commitment has to be full-throated.
And it has to hold up over time. “Abusive relationships feel like, when somebody who is the abuser says, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, and I really realize how wrong it is,’ and the other person is on edge. They are waiting for you — they are expecting you — to do that thing that you just said you’re not going to do. And when you do it just once after a proclamation that you are not, you are just starting all over again with the trust. It gets harder and harder to believe somebody like that.”
Subjecting kids to that cycle just isn’t good enough parenting. Still, engaging in these 13 behaviors doesn’t mean you’re not a good enough parent. As with our kids, it’s about actions, not character, and a growth mindset wins the day. “The sooner they stop,” Teicher said, “the better it’s going to be on how much you can reverse it.”
MORE FROM Gail Cornwall
Dr. Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. In her private practice, she counsels mothers and new parents. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.