The effects of verbal abuse on the development of children attachment

In general, there are four types of maltreatment: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). Verbal abuse is one form of emotional abuse in which delivered verbally, such as: swearing, name-calling and insulting. This theoretical review focuses on the development of attachment among verbally abused children.

Children are the most dependent members in the society and they rely on their parents or other caregivers. For most children in the fully functioning family, the support for their physical and emotional well-being is reliable and consistent (Daro, 1988). Mothers and other people around the children tend to spontaneously stimulate the children, by imitating their children expressions and sounds (Howe et al, 1999). By doing so, the children feel that they can begin to affect their own family – the smallest form of community – and appreciate themselves as active participants in family life.

For verbally abused children, the emotional support is inconsistent or absent. Abusive mothers who are hostile, rejecting and verbally abusive seem to have deep impact on their children behaviors. One study by The Minnesota Mother-Child Interaction Project (Egeland & Erickson, 1987) gave details of children at the age of 42 month who lacked of enthusiasm and persistence, noncompliant, negativistic and showed little affection to their mothers. They were reliant on their mothers, but avoided her except when seeking help. It showed the consequence when children are not accepted by their parents or caregivers, trust does not develop, because relationship between children and caregivers has the most important influence on children development.

Sometimes parents fail to differentiate between applying discipline and abusing their children. Parents want their children to show respect and being submissive toward adult authority and society. Some parents believe that their verbally aggressive behavior motivates children to try harder to do better (Solomon & Serres, 1999). In everyday life, it is normal for people to yell at each other, express anger and call people names sometimes. But emotional abuse occurs when the yelling and the anger gone too far or when parents perpetuate verbal hostility until the children self-esteem and feeling of self-worth are damaged (Lyness, 2004).

The sources of abuse are typically those who have close relationship with the children, such as parents or parents substitute and teachers at school. Gil (1988 ) showed that the majority of the perpetrators of adult survivors of childhood abuse (78%) are the member of her clients’ immediate family. It seems that child abuse occurs as an integral part of the family. Abusive parents are those who are inadequate, frightened, incapable parents who do not like what they are because they know that they are neglecting but they do not know how to stop it (Fontana, 1977). Abusive parents are afraid that their children, even their newborn baby, do not love them. Abusive parents also have tendency to invert the relationship from their own children. For them, children have responsibility to look after their parents instead of their parents looking after the children (Bowlby, 1988).

Beside parents as perpetrators, schools also engage in various forms of verbal abuse. For example: a teacher who ridicules and humiliates students when they give incorrect answers; a coach who taunts smaller, frailer students and encourages others to hurt them; a teacher who uses sarcasm and verbal put-downs, screams at students and shows inconsistencies toward students (Nunno, Holden & Leidy, 1997).

Shumba (2002) examined the extent and effect of emotional abuse on primary school students in Zimbabwe. Data were collected from 150 primary school teacher trainees and 300 primary school teachers using The Teacher Trainees Questionnaire and The Teacher Questionnaire. The study found that verbal abuse occurred in schools including: shouting at the students; scolding for mistakes; using vulgar language; humiliating students publicly; and negatively labeling students as stupid, ugly, foolish and many more. Surprisingly, the majority of teacher trainees (84.7%) and teachers (80.7%) believe that shouting or scolding at students for making mistakes are not acceptable. However, there is one possibility to explain the reason why verbal abuse still occurs: that in some cultures the form of verbal abuse is viewed as part of routine child-rearing practices.

Attachment is very important in the life of every human being. It is the very foundation of healthy individual development because it is created by ongoing reciprocal interactions between children and their primary caregivers motivated by protection and safety needs (Pearson, 2003). A young child is not capable to survive independently, therefore, as the first social institution, family should provide safety from external dangers. A family should provide the optimal environment for the children to develop their physical, mental and social capacities to the full.

Unfortunately, it is within family that verbal abuse most often takes place. Victims of verbal abuse in many forms are unable to develop and sustain relationship with others during childhood as well as in adulthood (Fatout, 1990); produce prolonged psychological damage (Rosenthal, 1987) and emotional damage (Lynnes, 2004). Following are the core features of secure attachment according to Bowlby (1979) and the comparison with the condition of abused children:

a) Specificity. Attachment behavior is directed toward one or few specific individuals.

Infants and young children should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with their mothers (or permanent mother substitute) in which both parties find enjoyment and satisfaction. In the case of abused children, their parents usually show a general attitude of resentment and rejection toward children.

b) Engagement of emotion. Many of the most intense emotions rise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption and the renewal of attachment relationship.

When ‘good-enough’ mothering is not available, children are at risk to detachment (Fatout, 1990). This detachment further erodes the parent-child relationship, providing additional impetus for abuse to occur. Caregivers who attach poorly are unable to be adequately emphatic and sensitive to the needs and states of the growing children, and consequently misperceive and misinterpret or disregard their behavioral and vocal signals (Steele, 1986).

c) Learning. Learning to distinguish the familiar from the strange is the key in the development of attachment.

When children feel familiar with their parents or caregivers, it will strengthen the adaptive attachment behavior between them. In the case of abused children, Egeland and Erickson (1987) found that mothers in hostile/verbally abusive group of their study, chronically found fault in their children behavior and criticizing them in harsh manner. They engaged in constant degrading and harassment of their children. The repeated abuse experiences could hamper the attachment between the children and mothers or caregivers, because it is difficult for the children to recognize the assault and defend themselves from many forms of verbal abuse from their caregivers (Ney et al, 1986). Children believe that they are not accepted as part of their family, because their parents or caregivers show constant rejection through verbally abusive behavior.

d) Organization. Initially attachment behaviors are mediated by responses organized on fairy simple lines, including sight or sound of mother-figure and, especially, happy interaction with them.

The interaction quality of mothers and their children is important and could affect the children quality in later development. Steele (1986) specified the negative effects of verbal abuse by mothers or caregivers. Abusive caregivers are unable to provide appropriate or adequate vocal and emotional interaction with the growing children and fail to give them the necessary stimuli for language development, as the basic for social aptitude. This lack of social ability will drive into a deeper problem of communication in their later stages of development.

Every child who lives in abusive family or environment will become accustomed to the believe that they are not worth enough to get involved as an important part of the family and not capable to be a fully functioning person. They will constantly trap into feeling of rejection, unlovable and unacceptable. When the attachment -as their primary need in childhood period- with their parents or caregivers is not fulfilled, the children will grow up with fear and anxiety because they know that no one wants to have a good and mutual relationship with them. The attachment is needed not just in their early age of childhood, but as the essential part of mature and pleasant adult relationship.

13 thoughts on “The effects of verbal abuse on the development of children attachment

  1. Most bad, absuive people cannnot and will not next change postively on their own without God’s input, help

    they cannot change in their own negative ways, for they are too set in them now too.

    Jesus has set me free.. from even being hooked to sins, and also from the bondage, the false oppression, enslavement by others.. sadly many other people want to be still enslaved but not me, I have really experienced freedom, I know what it is like, and I want to maintain my full freedom by God’s permission, help, now too. When I think about being set free I often do think about two images, visions that God has given me typically.. an all black, dark picture that turns to a normal scenery… and a picture of a large snake coming at me the size of a train which next disappears instead..

    There is physical abuse, there is verbal abuse, and next there is also the silent abuse, and the control freak’s abuse..

    I believe in all things work for the best for those who love God, but I rebuke all of the evil persons rightfully still that try to abuse me, others.. I do not accept rightfully their abuse of others.

    Here is my reality.. Control freaks are demonic persons, led by the devil, who try to bring us into bondage, and they tend to get a lot more crazy, get a lot worse.. Covering up for them, falsely denying who they are is also still an act of the other crazy people now too.

  2. Gods not going to help jesus isent going to help the only one that can help you is you. That’s how I feel. I’m 19 years old I moved out of my house 2 years ago because I couldent put up with my mom screaming at me everyday untill reading this I forgot what I thought about myself as a kid,yea this article is scarey true I can’t even express the pain I’m in after reading it I have extreemly bad anxiaty and stress problems I worry about what ppl think and trying to do things “right” all the time I don’t talk to my mom unless I owe her money for bills or can’t avoid talking to her shell tell me she loves me and I resent it I tell her I love her back because I have to. I work full time as a mechanic with my dad and if I wreck my cafr or do somthing wrong out side of work I get yelled at for it there were I’m already stressed to the max. I have a problem with drugs that I try to fight off everyday because I know I don’t need them but somthing keeps pulling me back to it to take the edge off of everyday life,
    relationships…not the best luck with those ether iv tryed to get help,talk to someone but 3 times there just like sry I can’t help you here or 2s a week isent gonna go nowere for you so I deal with things myself because I don’t have a choice gotta stay stong. Or maybe I. Use getting screamed at as an exuse for y I can bearly keep things together I also have add.

    1. I support you Mikeo, I left home at 18 for similar reasons and am now 45. I have worked many years on reversing the damage both of my abusive controlling manipulative parents have instilled. You can turn things around! 🙂 I had many different people over the years help, and some only pointed me in a better direction. I have seen many doctors and therapists, some were great, some were a poor fit for me. I was angry, depressed but wasn’t prescribed any medication, so talk therapy and reading lots of books, and re-training my subconscious finally helped me by leaps and bounds. I imagine I will continually be working on it. I stopped trying to heal my relationship together with them at age 40 because they thought it was all my fault anyway, and they didn’t feel they needed to work at it. Group therapy lasted about 2 months then they stopped going. They simply said if I changed, everything would be fine, and refused to take responsibility.

      My parents got very ill 4 years ago and needed help while they were in the hospital. (Dad had a stroke, Mom had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s and needed medical attention) I helped them because nobody else was available and I love them as human beings but they still behaved very badly through the whole event. I don’t speak to them now due to the fact that it’s just too stressful and not healthy for me. I wish they were nicer people but they aren’t. They never got nicer with old age either and are now in their eighties.They are very lucky to have a daughter like me to have helped them and love them through all of it. If they need help again, I will delegate it out to a stranger as I am not the right person to help them due to their abusive behavior. I wish them all the best, but now it’s my life and I’m going to focus on healing, not exposing myself any further to their nonsense.

  3. I believe the article was well written besides the couch being verbally abusive instead of the coach. 🙂 This describes a lot on the verbal abuse and was very helpful towards my English research paper, thank you.

  4. i love this, i just wish the law and someone would wake up and help these child who are 3 and 5 years old, social service won’t do anything because the children do not have any marks, verbal abuse is the hardest thing to get over, a slap will go away but words always stay,
    sign by a grandmother tiring to help her grandkids from their parents who are verbal abusing them

    1. My dad was verbally abusive to my mom, sister and I. our mom did not protect us. We were bullied in school and teachers especially in lombard illinois (1960’s) were extremely verbally abusive and humiliated students they did not like (not all of them, jusko and linved early 1960’s at fairwood were mean to certain kids)

      1. Hi there. Thank you for sharing your story from the 60s. I can not imagine how hard it was for you to bear all the abuse at home and school at the same time. The awareness of abuse is now growing rapidly and I believe because there are so many people who are brave like you to share the stories and raise the awareness. My best wishes is with you and your family.

  5. Hello Cicilia. I realise this reply is rather delayed in comparison to the date of publication, but I was wondering if you had information on the psychological effects on children when their mother is abused by a hated step father. I need to convince my mother that it is not healthy for me and my sisters. We’ve had to put up with it for six years (ages ranging over the years from 7 – 18 and everywhere in between). I would really appreciate if you could help. Thanks.

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