Parental verbal abuse of children is well-known, easily recognized, and often with devastating effects.  The dynamic is clear – parent as perpetrator and child as victim. The child needs and seeks approval and acceptance, but the parent is unwilling or unable to provide it. Parental verbal criticism and insults to the child leads to pervasive low self – esteem in children along with inevitable self – criticism. Signs of low self esteem include saying negative things and being critical of oneself, joking about oneself in a negative way, focusing on one’s negative traits and ignoring one’s accomplishments, blaming oneself when things go wrong, thinking that other people are always better and that a person with low self – esteem does not deserve to have fun.

Self – esteem itself is formed generally through two major sources. The primary contributor is the verbal and non-verbal appraisals of the child by his/her parents and/or other caretakers. A less powerful – but still significant – contributor to self – esteem is the child’s self-appraisal of his/her own abilities, skills, and assets. While children are certainly capable of recognizing their own strengths and skills, their appraisal of themselves as competent or deficient is determined more by parental appraisal and feedback than by the child’s self-assessment. When the child does demonstrate significant ability in the context of verbal criticism and abuse, it sometimes makes the verbal abuse harder to live with. The conflict between the two sources of esteem creates substantial distress for the child and emerging adult, but also provides an opportunity for remediation.

So why do some parents verbally abuse their children? The most obvious answer is that the parent may be conflicted about having the child. On one hand he/she may feel the need to do the right thing by taking care of the child’s often very substantial needs for nourishment, caring, and affection. On the other hand, parents on a deeper level may not like the child or not like the responsibility of caring for the child. The child may not have been wanted, and after birth required lots of time and attention. Verbally abusive parents may be already struggling to take care of their own needs – both physical and emotional – and with the addition of one or more children, they have to subsume their own needs in favor of the child’s needs.  Some parents may resent this requirement, or what may be worse, demand something in return from the child for the sacrifice the parent is making. The parents themselves may have been deprived, abused, criticized, or depreciated as children. With respect to self – esteem, the parent himself/herself may have low confidence and low self – esteem and therefore is unable to model it for the child. Moreover, the parent may overtly or covertly require the child to compensate the parent by demonstrating some behavior(s) that brings pride to the insecure and self-depreciating parent.   Some parents may consider the child as an investment to provide a feeling of success to a parent who otherwise feels like a failure with low self – worth. In this way parents often live vicariously through their children and require the child to achieve what the parent was unable to accomplish.

Children and adults who were verbally abused by their parents have been shown repeatedly to demonstrate self – criticism and low self – esteem as they grow older.  Verbally abused people seem to develop an INTERNALIZING way of reacting which often leads to the development of anxiety, depression and somatization.

By way of contrast, EXTERNALIZING behavior and disorders are characterized primarily by actions in the external world, such as acting out, antisocial behavior, hostility, and aggression. INTERNALIZING behaviors and disorders are characterized primarily by processes WITHIN THE SELF such as anxiety, depression and somatization.  Adults who were subjected to severe and persistent verbal abuse as children spend large portions of their life struggling within themselves to enjoy life unencumbered by insecurity, inner criticism, self – doubt and not liking themselves. It’s as if they alone know how they think and feel about themselves internally but are reluctant to reveal their inner selves to other people and the outside world.  In many cases the internalizing process is unconscious and may require psychotherapy to uncover the underlying source of anxiety and depression.

In the context of psychotherapy, people with low self = esteem may become aware of the multitude of verbally abusive remarks made to their developing self as a child,  sometimes said angrily and other times in a matter-of-fact manner. Statements such as “you are good for nothing”, “you should be ashamed of yourself,” it’s your own fault” (when an accident occurs) “if you weren’t so bad this wouldn’t happen”, “you are a horrible person”, ”you don’t deserve any good things”, “why can’t you be like someone else who behaves like a good and obedient child”. These are just a few of the many examples of abusive statements made to children.  In addition, some parents use guilt inducing statements as verbal abuse such as accusing the child of not appreciating or being ungrateful for all the caring that the parent has given to the child, and expecting gratitude in return.

The basic paradigm of verbal abuse is that parental verbal criticism is an insidious ongoing process that leads to self – criticism, subsequent low self – esteem and various degrees of anxiety, depression, and somatization in the child.  Remediation occurs when the adult victim of childhood verbal abuse gradually becomes able to recognize and eventually reject the critical and depreciating narrative that has become an essential part of the victim’s sense of self, but is neither true or necessary to maintain.

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