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I frequently see parents engaging in behavior that I perceive to be verbal abuse. However, with so many parents falling in different places with regard to the strictness of their discipline, the directness of their communication with their children, etc. I am finding it hard to put into words an objective standard that separates verbal abuse from strictness, directness, or just plain bad parenting that hasn't escalated to the point of abuse. To my knowledge, there is no legal concept of "verbal abuse", at least where I live.

If you were asked to describe, as objectively as possible, what specific quality or qualities make(s) a parent's behavior verbally abusive, as opposed to not abusive (though potentially much less than ideal), how would you do it?

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your question is not clear. Can you elaborate? –  Jeff Atwood May 12 '11 at 5:38
    
I'd like to see more specificity here, or in another related question, but I think as phrased it's a valid inquiry. I'm adding some explanatory text based on my understanding of the earlier question that led to this one. –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 0:21
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+1 after the edits for clarification. –  Beofett May 13 '11 at 12:10
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4 Answers 4

There's a huge spectrum between ideal and dangerously unhealthy interaction with one's child, and it's really hard to say "this is the point at which it's abuse" as opposed to just plain bad parenting. Here are some things that, after working with at risk kids for nearly a decade, I would categorize as elements of verbal abuse, however, I won't speculate on how much or in what combination they must occur to be abuse...

  • Ad-hominem attacks: "you're stupid" "you're ugly" etc. will never be helpful or useful because they teach your child that whatever angered you is beyond their control yet still their fault, it's just a way to vent your rage. A healthy interaction focuses on problem behaviors and ways to change them.

  • Unpredictability: Kids require consistency to learn right from wrong; if they don't know what will anger you and what won't, all they are learning is fear.

  • Threats of or actual physical harm, abandonment, etc.: Again, this isn't constructive in any way, it only teaches fear.

  • Unrealistic insistence on one's own power and/or infallibility: This is a bid for control that either backfires, destroying any parent/child relationship, or works, teaching your child maladaptive strategies such as highly external locus of control, a fatalist world-view, and dependence on authority.

  • Attributing fault for things outside the child's control: This teaches the child that he/she cannot choose his/her own lot in life, and that he/she cannot trust the parent. It usually leads to self-destructive behaviors of some kind. I saw this a lot with parents who thought they could punish a child out of some disability.

I'm sure there are things I haven't thought of, but I think those give a good idea of what abusive patterns may look like. This isn't to say that snapping over something you usually wouldn't, or letting something go you normally discipline, or misattributing control over a situation is automatically abuse -- no parent is perfect. However, if these things constitute a defining pattern in the child's life, something is seriously wrong.

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To me, ad-hominem attacks, threats of actual physical harm/abandonment, and attributing fault for things outside the child's control are pretty clearly examples of verbal or psychological abuse, intentional or not. Unpredictability and unrealistic insistence on one's own power and/or infallibility strike me as more "bad parenting" traits. However, I'm not sure that the distinction is any more than semantic. Verbal abuse is just one form of bad parenting, and all forms of bad parenting can have devastating long-term consequences for a child's growth and development. –  Beofett May 13 '11 at 13:33
    
@Javid Jamae But the fact that they're legally classified as 'assault' does not make them any less a form of abuse, does it? –  kivetros May 20 '11 at 18:56
    
I think the unrealistic insistence on one's own power and/or infallibility is completely in-keeping with abusive behavior. It ties in with the tendency of the abuser to make the abused feel dependent upon the abuser. Abusers tend to add this emotional element and it is a big part of what gives them the power to continue being abusive and for the abused to think it is normal or expected they should be abused. –  balanced mama Nov 29 '13 at 22:24
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Here's a good article on the topic for dating, but most of it applies to a parent-child relationship as well.

It is very difficult to define for any one event, but a good rule of thumb is are the words intended to hurt, or are they just because you are hurt? Occasional yelling because you are angry, or exhausted, or at the end of your rope does not necessarily constitute abuse. Yelling regularly with words expressly calculated with the intent of making your child cry or feel belittled or afraid of you does.

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+1 for emphasizing the intent of the yelling. I think that is spot on. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 12 '11 at 6:10
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I would think though that if the normal days are filled with yelling --even if not designed to hurt-- would still affect a child's social abilities as compared to growing up in a soft-spoken household. This must not necessarily be in a negative way, but to me it would seem likely. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 12 '11 at 6:10
    
Completely agreed, @torbengb. Children need to learn how to deal with emotions in a way that won't get them fired down the road. Also, too much yelling affects the child's perception of the parent's intent, whether the parent sees it that way or not. We had a foster daughter who would quake in fear of us if we raised our voice to her even to say something benign like "watch out." Consequently, the threshold of what constituted verbal abuse for her was much lower, even though her fear had nothing to do with us personally. –  Karl Bielefeldt May 12 '11 at 6:46
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I should also point out that some of the most devastating verbal abuse can be spoken in very calm tones. –  Karl Bielefeldt May 12 '11 at 20:39
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-1: agree with @HedgeMage, intent does not matter. If your answer is moot, then delete it. –  Javid Jamae May 20 '11 at 6:46
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I agree with Karl's answer, but I'd like to add a few things on the subject of raising one's voice, and Hairy's comments about "asserting control" over a child being abuse.

Children, particularly young ones, are not usually aware of potentially life-threatening situations. It is our job as parents to protect them from those situations, first and foremost.

If a child is in a dangerous situation and you have to yell at them to get them to react, by all means do so.

If it becomes a regular situation, and your child does not respond when you raise your voice at them when they are in danger, then you need to find some way to assert control. Yes, generally speaking children do better when they feel like they have some level of say and control over their lives, but parents need to be able and willing to step in and give orders that will be obeyed when the situation merits it (which, generally speaking, is when there is behavior that is dangerous, either to the child or other people).

Claiming any instance of raising your voice to a child, or any attempt to "assert control" is "heading in the direction" of abuse is, in my opinion, a serious overstatement. I guarantee you that if, in 20 years, your child sobs to his/her therapist "my daddy yelled at me once when I was 5, and it made me feel really bad! And all I was doing was playing in the road with cars coming..." the therapist will side with you. Even if there are half a dozen examples, if each one involves you yelling when your child is in a dangerous situation, no one will find you to be at fault.

Abuse is a serious, and horrible thing, and verbal abuse is not one iota "less horrible" than any form of physical abuse. In some ways it can be worse. But neglecting your responsibilities as a parent to protect your child out of fear that maybe you might permanently emotionally scar your child if you are strict in enforcing certain rules can be as damaging or worse.

It is important (and extremely difficult) to find a balance between strict and supportive. Too strict can quickly become oppressive, and can stifle the child's emotional growth. Too supportive can quickly become permissive, which results in a child with no understanding of boundaries.

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I am discounting any use of a sharp voice to keep a child out of actual danger. As well as limited use of a crisp "No!" with a young child who is doing something seriously wrong... We have to learn not to hit the cat. I try not to use strong commands for everyday "misbehaving" instead I'll say "alright mister, it is time to do something other than pull everything out of the closet, lets go do X instead". My gauge is how easily it is forgotten. For example, kiddo gives the cat a little open palm smack and I say "No!", he'll cry for a sec, run to me for a hug... and be on his way and babbling. –  kleineg Jul 8 at 15:09
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If you are raising your voice, to assert control, to make your child fear you, imo it's abuse, regardless of the words you are coming out with. We all fall foul of it, occassionaly, but it is a form of abuse. I believe there has to be a tonal difference with your voice to identify the difference between 'normal business' and 'you've done something wrong', but rather than shout, form strong words are necessary from time to time.

I agree with @Karl Bielefeldt i.e yelling when there's been a bit of a loss of control, due to a long day, or for whatever reasons, doesn't constitute abuse, but is heading in that direction.

I think the links between verbal abuse and physical abuse (spanking etc) are that you are asserting control over someone by bullying them, making them submissive; for me it strangles creativity too, but that's a personal thing.

I have an article I read not long ago which I agree with, on almost all levels, about what constitutes the abuse you're talking about, be that teachers at school ridiculing kids who give the wrong answers or their coaches laughing at their perceived frailties, or weaknesses; it's all the same thing. Interestingly, the article links fear in the parents as one of the factors in why they verbally abuse.

I have strayed too far with my voice, but never the content; I'd be mortified if I called my child stupid, or weak, or useless. The most I have ever accused any of my children, was of being a bit sooky sometimes. Even then I felt bad.

My overwhelming belief, however, is that parents who try too hard to get their children to be submissive to them, and society generally, have control issues.

Anecdotaly, I have a friend whose father was a Sergeant Major in the army. He had 7 siublings. The father had control of a regient of men (some 600 soldiers), whom every one would crawl over broken glass for, would, literally and physically, die for. yet he couldn't control his kids. The father would beat the kids, at almost every transgression and eventually ended up having a breakdown.

The effects of verbal abuse

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I donned my moderator hat for a moment and deleted all comments (more than 20 on this answer!). Please use the parenting chat for discussions. It keeps the conversations alive even if you're not logged in. Hairy, feel free to revise your question to incorporate anything you feel is relevant. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 12 '11 at 18:16
    
No need, I believe we'll never agree, so any further conversation seems pointless. –  Hairy May 12 '11 at 18:43
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