The Impact of Emotional & Verbal Abuse in Childhood
Updated: Jun 20
Physical and sexual abuse are two of the most common areas of abuse in childhood, and they are also the two most obvious traumas in childhood, especially if they are ongoing. Physical and sexual acts of abuse are more blatant than verbal and emotional abuse, however children acquire complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) from emotionally and verbally abusive/traumatizing families as much as they do from physically abusive/traumatizing families. It can be easy for children from emotionally abusive homes to become adults who discount their abuse, saying "well, I was never hit or sexually abused, so it couldn't have been that bad." But denying the effects of emotional abandonment drastically reduces that person's ability to heal and recover.
Let's take a look into emotional and verbal abuse and how it effects children who then become adults.
Or maybe, if it relates, how it's effected you.
Verbal & Emotional Abuse/Abandonment
Children who experience ongoing emotional and verbal abuse/abandonment have overwhelming feelings of shame, emptiness, and fear. When these children become adults, they have flashbacks that take them right back to these feelings of abandonment that encompass shame, emptiness, and fear. In order for these adults to fully recover, they have to realize that the feelings of depression, fear, and shame are from the effects of having a childhood that was, at its core, loveless.
It's challenging for childhood trauma victims to recognize that verbal and emotional abuse can be traumatic. According to Pete Walker, a licensed therapist who wrote a book called Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving and has done extensive research on CPTSD and its effects, he came to realize that "for me and many of my clients, verbal and emotional abuse damaged us much more than our physical abuse" (p.91)
When we're constantly assaulted with critical words about our character, our behaviors, our personalities, our likes or dislikes, etc., it destroys our self-esteem and replaces it with an inner critic who is toxic and is judging our every move. Even worse, when parents use words toward their children that are emotionally poisoned with contempt, it infuses the child with toxic shame and fear. That fear and shame become something that conditions the child to not ask for attention or express themselves in any way that might draw attention. Soon after, the child stops seeking connection at all.
How Verbal & Emotional Abuse Effects the Brain
Criticism that is unrelenting, especially when it's coming from parental scorn and rage, is so injury-inducing that it actually changes the structure of the child's brain. When repeated messages of disdain are internalized by the child, the child will eventually start to repeat those messages to themselves. These repetitions construct thick neural pathways of self-disgust and self-hate. And over time, these responses of self-hate become attached to how the child feels, thinks, and behaves.
Eventually, if there's a step toward authentic or vulnerable self-expression, it's met with internal neural networks of self-loathing. The child is forced to exist in a constant state of self-attack, which later becomes the equivalent of self-abandonment. The ability the child used to have to take their own side or support themselves is completely decimated. They constantly feel like it's their fault, they're the issue, and they're always wrong.
The verbal and emotional layer of this type of abuse has many sub-layers of minimizations. Examples of these sub-layers might be things you've said to yourself or other people about yourself:
"I know I'm hard on myself, but I've gotta keep kicking my own ass because I'm lazy."
"I really need you to be harsh to me if I try to get away with anything!"
"I can't believe I messed that up. I'm such an idiot."
"How did I forget to do that? What the hell is wrong with me?"
The interesting thing about the toxic inner critic is that it sounds like our own voice, but if we actually pause for a second and hear what the toxic inner critic is telling us, it's just repeating what our parents have said to us when we were children.
How to Heal
In order to heal from emotional abandonment, we have to find real intimacy with others. We can't heal in isolation. It's only through safe, genuine connections can we actually begin to take steps towards healing. Children who have endured emotional and verbal abuse/abandonment from their caregivers grow up to become adults who struggle to find or believe in safe relationships because their caregivers did not model safe relationships to them when they were children. Having a partner, spouse, or friend that is able to model to you the core components of safety in a relationship (trust, authenticity, vulnerability, kindness, respect, and love) can help create new neural pathways in the brain.
Another important way to begin healing is by recognizing that the emotional and verbal abuse you endured as a child was that bad. It was abusive. You had parents who abused you. Being able to validate that truth about your life instead of pushing it under the rug or saying "well,, other people had it worse" is you providing the validation to your inner child that they've been looking for all this time. We have to grieve the truth of what we've been through. This isn't easy, but it's a necessary step on the road to recovery.
Being able to verbalize that your parents neglected their duty to nurture and protect you is the master key to your recovery. When you're in an emotional flashback, you'll be able to start seeing that these flashbacks are direct messages from your inner child about how severely your parents rejected you. To learn more about emotional flashbacks, click here.
When we really understand the significant of childhood emotional neglect, it's an empowering accomplishment. It can be almost like a breath of fresh air when we realize that when we're in an emotional flashback, we're actually just relieving a very real part of our childhood. This creates the ability for us to be self-protective towards our inner child and our current adult self; something our parents did not give us or do for us as children.
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.
At Root Counseling, we help adults recover from and learn about CPTSD by creating a safe, authentic relationship with each of our clients. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.