Verbal Abuse Essay

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Verbal abuse is a form of psychological or emotional maltreatment in which perpetrators use words to harm others. Verbal abuse communicates a basic disrespect for another’s personhood. The content of the abuse can include criticism, threats, insults, humiliation, degradation, intimidation, invalidation, harassment, hate speech, or profanity. Verbal abuse can be perpetrated by parents, teachers, peers, intimate partners, strangers, colleagues, or superiors in the workplace. This form of abuse can have serious emotional consequences, and many victims experience depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Healthful relationships can help to repair the effects of verbal abuse, and several forms of psychotherapy can address the abuse and its effects.
Verbal abuse may range from a single incident to an environment that is characterized by chronic verbal aggression. Repeated verbal abuse, especially when perpetrated by individuals close to the victim, can produce exceptionally deleterious consequences, including depression and anxiety. Chronic verbal abuse can also exacerbate levels of stress-related physical and psychological conditions. Individuals who experience verbal abuse are at risk of internalizing the negative messages contained within the maltreatment, a risk which can produce low self-esteem and anxious or depressed moods. Though research concerning abuse initially focused on the occurrence of physical and sexual abuse, recent research has demonstrated that psychological or emotional abuse, including verbal abuse, often produces consequences that are just as dire. Both victims and health professionals may fail to take verbal abuse seriously, with the result that individuals may experience the effects of the abuse while remaining unaware of the origin of their symptoms.
Both the scope of verbal abuse and its intangible nature make it challenging for researchers to investigate and for victims to recognize. Therefore, it frequently is undetected and is rarely prosecuted, especially since child protective services typically prioritize crisis situations. Nonetheless, several research studies have demonstrated the serious effects of verbal abuse on mental and physical health and show that its consequences can be as harmful as the effects of physical or sexual abuse, and in some cases even more damaging.
Verbal Abuse during Childhood
Children’s experiences with verbal abuse occur at the same time that they are developing an understanding of the world and a sense of their own identity. Perhaps for this reason, earlier onset of abuse is linked to more severe emotional effects. Children are vulnerable to believing the messages about themselves that they receive from parents and from other authority figures. When those messages include verbal abuse, children are likely to develop views of themselves as worthless, bad, or unlovable. These beliefs often endure into adulthood and influence victims’ relationships, work, and parenting. Forms of abuse often occur together. For instance, parents who verbally abuse their children are likely to be neglecting their children’s emotional needs, and parents who physically or sexually abuse their children often commit verbal abuse such as threats or insults as part of those forms of abuse. Children whose parents are verbally abusive are less likely than other children to develop healthful attachments to caregivers. Often, verbal abuse perpetrated by parents is not intentional, but may arise from the mistaken belief that frequent criticism is helpful for children. Parents may replicate the same type of parenting they received as children.
Bullying from other students, actions which can include insults or threats of physical attacks, can result in a dislike or avoidance of school among children and adolescents. Similarly, teachers who communicate that students are incapable, unintelligent, or unimportant can seriously impact students’ views of themselves and their abilities. In these ways, verbal abuse from peers or teachers may detract from optimal academic and professional achievement.
Verbal Abuse during Adulthood
Adults may often be victims of verbal abuse, and their experiences may be similar to those described above. The abuse may take place when there is a power difference that prevents victims from protesting their treatment. When verbal abuse occurs in intimate relationships, victims may believe the negative messages they receive from their partners and doubt that they would be able to function effectively if they were to leave abusive situations. When verbal abuse or harassment occurs in the workplace, financial dependence or career advancement may prohibit individuals from taking action.
Hate Speech
When a person is verbally abused on the basis of his or her gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or physical appearance, such attacks target aspects central to that person’s identity. When this type of abuse occurs, individuals are likely to feel alienated, disempowered, angry, or depressed. These feelings may be exacerbated when victims feel unable to change the disrespectful attitudes they encounter.
A common consequence of repeated verbal abuse is for victims to believe its content rather than to protest their mistreatment. Freyd has explained that victims of abuse often selectively ignore information when it would threaten necessary relationships. If abuse is inescapable, it may not be adaptive for victims to be aware that it is occurring. Instead, it may be easier and safer at the time of the abuse for victims to incorporate negative messages into views about themselves. Even after victims are no longer dependent on caregiving relationships characterized by verbal abuse, they may be reluctant to question the treatment they received. Because verbal abuse often challenges a person’s sense of self-worth, depression and anxiety are common consequences. Research underscores that internalizing the content of verbal abuse does indeed produce some of the emotional disturbances commonly observed in victims. Sachs-Ericsson and colleagues demonstrated these connections in a sample of over 5,000 adults and reported that self-criticism fully accounted for the link between parental verbal abuse and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Another frequent outcome of verbal abuse is dissociation, in which people “space out” in order to mentally escape the reality of their actual experiences. Histories of verbal abuse are overrepresented in individuals with personality disorders, dissociative disorders, and schizophrenia and among people who commit suicide. Victims of verbal abuse are more likely to use and abuse alcohol than other individuals and are at greater risk for medical issues such as disordered eating and childbirth complications
When individuals are hurt in the context of relationships, as is the case with abuse, positive interpersonal exchanges can help repair the effects of maltreatment. Healthful relationships convey messages that impart respect and care and can occur with therapists, counselors, friends, intimate partners, family members, or mentors. When victims of verbal abuse seek help from a counselor or therapist, they commonly have not formed a conscious understanding regarding the abuse and their current emotional difficulties. Instead, abuse victims usually seek therapy for issues related to depression or difficult relationships. Though some therapists’ backgrounds and training lead them to consider whether their clients have experienced abuse, other therapists may not address this possibility. Mental health professionals may approach people who have experienced verbal abuse with a range of treatment orientations. These therapeutic methods include relational therapy, interpersonal therapy (IPT), and cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT).
Therapists approaching clients from a relational perspective endeavor to establish genuine relationships with their clients. Relational therapists provide careful listening and empathy, support empowerment, and attend to feelings of both connection and misunderstanding. The therapeutic relationship then serves as a model that extends to clients’ other relationships.
Mental health practitioners who use IPT focus on aspects of current relationships and seek to discover patterns and make changes to improve the ways individuals relate to others. IPT sessions may also explore the ways that aspects of past relationships affect present relationships. This type of therapy addresses roles, transitions, grief, communication, and interpersonal difficulties. From an interpersonal perspective, focusing on improving relationships produces benefits in clients’ emotions and behaviors.
Health professionals who provide CBT attend to links among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Individuals who have suffered long-term verbal abuse are likely to have negative thoughts and core beliefs about themselves, an effect which then leads to undesirable feelings and behaviors. By helping clients identify their current thoughts and beliefs, form more positive thoughts, and increase healthful behaviors, CBT can improve individuals’ emotional states.
At present, there is limited research regarding the best type of therapy for individuals who have experienced verbal abuse. However, large-scale studies of the effectiveness of psychotherapy indicate that the relationship between the therapist and the client is more important than the particular type of therapy that is conducted. In addition, there is substantial evidence that both CBT and IPT are effective for treating depression and that CBT also is useful in treating anxiety symptoms, another frequent response to verbal abuse. Other health professionals will prescribe antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications to address these symptoms.
Future Research
Verbal abuse is a form of interpersonal violence that can have serious health consequences. Healthful relationships can help repair the harm caused by verbal abuse, and several types of psychotherapy address this form of victimization and the emotional difficulties that may result. Future research will increase our understanding of its effects and clarify optimal methods of prevention and treatment.
1. Eliasson M. A., Laflamme L., & Isaksson K. (2005). Verbal abuse, gender and well-being at school. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 17(4), 367–378.
2. Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3. Goldsmith, R. E., & Freyd, J. J. (2005). Awareness for emotional abuse. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5(1), 95–123.
4. Gracia, E. (1995). Visible but unreported: A case for the “not serious enough” cases of child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19(9), 1083–1093.
5. Sachs-Ericsson, N., Verona, E., Joiner, T., & Preacher, K. J. (2006). Parental verbal abuse and the mediating role of self-criticism in adult internalizing disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 93(1–3), 71–78.
6. Teicher, M. H., Samson, J. A., Polcari, A., & McGreenery, C. E. (2006). Sticks, stones, and hurtful words: Relative effects of various forms of childhood maltreatment. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(6), 993–1000.

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