Verbal Abuse: Words Can Hurt

Emotional abuse is perhaps the least understood type of abuse.  In the field of trauma it is sometimes thought of as a “little t” trauma. Many people minimize its importance or the damage it does. Think of the familiar adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.  In my practice, however, I see every day the lasting and severe impact of childhood emotional abuse. I want to share with you a research study that supports this.

I am including an abstract of a study looking at the impact of one type of emotional abuse, parental verbal abuse, on the child’s developing brain. My understanding of conclusion of this study is that childhood exposure to ongoing verbal abuse by parents has been found to have an adverse impact on the child’s developing brain even when no other type of abuse or trauma has occurred. The impact seems to be similar to witnessing domestic violence as a child or being sexually abused by someone outside the immediate family.

The parts of the brain that are impacted are related to language processing and areas that are effected in those who experience dissociation, depression and anxiety. What does this mean? Perhaps it can help us understand why emotional/verbal abuse alone can lead to the development of the type of symptoms we associate with complex PTSD. I hope that studies like this can help illustrate how serious emotional abuse really is.

The abstract is below. Or read an interview with the main investigator, Martin Teicher, MD, Ph.D:

For now, however, the most important message of this work may be the awareness that parental verbal abuse is damaging. “People hear that spanking is bad, so they stop doing that and become more verbally abusive,” said Teicher. “It turns out, that may be worse.”

Abstract: Preliminary Evidence for White Matter Tract Abnormalities in Young Adults Exposed to Parental Verbal Abuse


Psychiatric sequelae of exposure to parental verbal abuse (PVA) appear to be comparable with that of nonfamilial sexual abuse and witnessing domestic violence. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) was used to ascertain whether PVA was associated with abnormalities in white matter (WM) tract integrity.


1271 healthy young adults were screened for exposure to childhood adversity. Diffusion tensor imaging was collected on 16 unmedicated subjects with history of high-level exposure to PVA but no other form of maltreatment (4 male/12 female subjects, mean age 21.9 +/- 2.4 years) and 16 healthy control subjects (5 male/11 female subjects, 21.0 +/- 1.6 years). Group differences in fractional anisotropy (FA), covaried by parental education and income, were assessed using tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS).


Three WM tract regions had significantly reduced FA: 1) arcuate fasciculus in left superior temporal gyrus, 2) cingulum bundle by the posterior tail of the left hippocampus, and 3) the left body of the fornix. Fractional anisotropy in these areas was strongly associated with average PVA scores (rs = -.701, -.801, -.524, respectively) and levels of maternal verbal abuse. Across groups, FA in region 1 correlated with verbal IQ and verbal comprehension index. Fractional anisotropy in region 2 was inversely associated with ratings of depression, dissociation, and limbic irritability. Fractional anisotropy in region 3 was inversely correlated with ratings of somatization and anxiety.


Exposure to PVA may be associated with alteration in the integrity of neural pathways with implications for language development and psychopathology.

Jeewook Choi, Bumseok Jeong, Michael L. Rohan, Ann M. Polcari, Martin H. Teicher, Preliminary Evidence for White Matter Tract Abnormalities in Young Adults Exposed to Parental Verbal Abuse, Biological Psychiatry, Volume 65, Issue 3, Epigenetic Mechanisms in Psychiatry, 1 February 2009, Pages 227-234, ISSN 0006-3223, DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.06.022.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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15 Responses to Verbal Abuse: Words Can Hurt

  1. Dan Hays says:

    Great article, Kathleen! Yes, verbal abuse can be horribly damaging. When I was 14, my Dad said, “Poems, you little —, you’ll never amount to anything.” It killed my writing for 20 years, and was horribly scarring! I agree, it’s not a “little t” trauma.

  2. Gwenny says:

    I suffered a lot of abuse, in all forms as a child. Most of it I have been able to deal with. But even now remembering my mother’s profanity laced harangues about how ugly, stupid and unlovable I am, how I ruined her life by being born and she wished I had died can make me cry. And I’m 53. When my husband left me a few years ago, my first thought was, “Well, what did I expect, why would anyone want to love me I’m so ugly and stupid.” /sob

  3. Physical wounds usually heal quickly. Emotional wounds don’t. Sometimes they can affect you for a lifetime.

  4. MsMilaWisc says:

    what do you suggest to try to reverse the negativity that has already taken place for a 9 y.o.?

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  8. Jesse Dziedzic says:

    I believe you are right completely!!!

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  10. Mary says:

    I had grown up in a household with a verbally abusive step father. Now I am in another. I has me unaware of social norms and cause me to fear men. Sadly this has happened for over 19 years to me and I do not think I can ever trust men because I am always waiting for them to yell at me.

  11. MK says:

    Not recognizing that I had been verbally abused throughout childhood, I always wondered what was wrong with me. Once I came to realization, all the pieces fit. Negative thoughts were how I survived, my thoughts had been pretty horrible. No one could ever love you, look at you, you’re so stupid, you’ll just fail like everything else in life, and as crazy as this sounds I found comfortable pain in these words because its all I ever knew. It was so much harder to be positive when you subconsciously believe you don’t deserve it

  12. Mereloo says:

    Is there any information out there about verbal abuse that was inconsistent? Is there any protective benefit when the parent sometimes gives praise? For instance, my mom would tell me that I looked pretty or that I was kind, but she’d also yell as a form of discipline. I’d be told I was lazy or selfish because I kept forgetting things (undiagnosed ADHD until high school) or things weren’t put away just right. I’d lie or hide things from her to avoid getting yelled at, and then I’d be called a liar (which I sometimes was, though it was a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma, and often I told the truth more than other kids about certain things).

    I can’t remember a lot of the things she yelled at me for since, thankfully, I blocked some of it out – but that’s a symptom of trauma too, isn’t it? I even once found a cassette tape with my voice on it as a little child scolding myself over and over to pay attention. I sometimes wonder if it’s actually ADHD or the result of trauma or if it’s both. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I am seeing a therapist now, so that’s good

    Another thing I’m curious about is adult children living at home (which is my situation right now). How many adults in these situations faced abuse as children and are continuing to face it now? I pay a tiny, tiny amount of rent- not enough to cover my living there, though, I’n told because of the food, etc. (I buy some of my own food too.) I cook dinner once a week and help out with stuff around the house. However, I can’t choose when I want to do certain chores. (Even if I’m not working the next day, certain chores had to be done that night.) I’m in my mid thirties and restricted in how often I’m allowed to go out. I’m unable to make last-minute plans, and I regularly endure verbal abuse about how lazy and selfish I am and how I’ll never get out of there (which, in fairness, I do need to make more of an effort to do, but this shame isn’t exactly motivating; I’m working on it.) (There’s a lot more verbal abuse than I described here too.)

    I’d love to see if there’s anything out there regarding adult children who were verbally abided and whether they are more likely to wind up back in their parents’ homes as adults and if they continue to experience abuse there.

    • Mereloo says:

      Pardon the autocorrect errors. (Obviously, “abide” was supposed to read as “abuse.” I’m sure there are other errors too, since I didn’t really look it over.)

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