Unclothing the Lie that Words Can Never Hurt

“My God! You are so clumsy! What is wrong with you?” Once again, Angie had spilled her milk. Her siblings popped up out of their seats, as much to get away from their mother as away from the milk, which was now spreading across the table and threatening to drip on the floor.

“Get out of my way!” their mother yelled as she grabbed a kitchen towel and headed for the spill. “Don’t just stand there! Pick up those plates so I can make sure it doesn’t get on the carpet! Angie was afraid to move, afraid to do anything else wrong. No one looked at her—not her mother, not her brother, not her sister— until the spill was mopped up and the table put back together.

“Oh, no you don’t,” her mother said as Angie started to sit down at the table. “You cannot be trusted.” After picking up Angie’s plate, her mother went into the kitchen and placed it on the floor, next to the dog bowl. “You can just eat with the dog until you can eat like a person.” With that, her mother marched back into the other room, leaving Angie thinking about a meal she no longer had any interest in.

Emotional abuse happens when an adult humiliates a child for actions consistent with being a child.

Children require correction from adults to learn the right thing to do. Emotional abuse happens when correction meant to help the child is turned into humiliation meant to punish the child. The definition of humiliation is to cause a painful loss of dignity, pride, or self-respect. Children have not yet gained the maturity to withstand the damage of humiliation, which can be difficult even for adults to endure. Humiliating a child is taking advantage of someone younger and more vulnerable out of a distorted desire for control and power.

More than twenty years ago, I wrote a book on emotional abuse because I wasn’t finding much acknowledgment regarding the damage I was seeing in my clients from emotional or psychological abuse. One question I asked in that book was why emotional abuse was so common. I concluded that emotional abuse was so prevalent because some people categorized emotional abuse as normal. How could something normal be considered abusive? So what if you were yelled at growing up, wasn’t everyone? Who cared if you were regularly dismissed as worthless? You just needed to try harder. If you didn’t grow up feeling loved, that was just a generational thing you were supposed to get over. If you weren’t beaten within an inch of your life, you had nothing to complain about. So people didn’t complain; they moved on with their lives. Yet some of those people kept having difficulties, difficulties that eventually led them to my office.

People are slow to admit the obvious in cases of emotional abuse for various reasons. When I was growing up, years of groupthink said that adults, especially parents, had the right to deal with children however they saw fit. You weren’t supposed to involve yourself in another family’s “business.” If adults spoke harshly to children, well, they must have had a reason. It wasn’t your “place” to object—and certainly not in public.

My generation also grew up learning that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating that rhyme to myself when other kids were mean to me. I learned the lesson well and determined I wasn’t going to let other kids get to me. That rhyme wasn’t as successful when it came to hurtful words from adults, and certainly not my parents.

When I started my practice over thirty years ago, I committed to unclothe the lie that “words can never hurt.” They can and they do, in stunning and devastating ways. When society collectively comes to that conclusion, the emotional abuse of children will become less common.

If you or a loved one is struggling with past abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help.  Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues, and bringing healing to the whole family. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.

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