Verbal Abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Words that Cause War Trauma

By verbal abuse, scientists mean “scolding, cursing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, humiliating and criticizing” others.[1] In their own words, over sixty percent of all parents use verbal aggression towards their children.

Among verbal aggression, scientists also count symbolic aggression, such as, for example, slamming a door shut in someone’s face. “Verbal/symbolic aggression is communication meant to hurt another person psychologically,” but also communication perceived as such counts, because just as with physical violence, what matters isn’t the sender’s good intentions, but the mental pain the receiver suffers.[2]

In short, words do hurt.[3] The APSAC-manual on child maltreatment mentions four ways in which parents hurt their children verbally, namely by belittling, degrading or otherwise treating them with hostility or rejection; by humiliating them, or ridiculing them for showing normal emotions (for example, calling a crying child a crybaby); by criticizing children and punishing them often for all their mistakes; and by publicly humiliating a child.[4] Adults have a clear verbal advantage against which children cannot defend themselves.

The effects of verbal abuse have been researched even less than emotional maltreatment, because even researchers believe they’re “just words” that won’t do any real harm. However, from a psychological point of view, of all types of maltreatment, verbal aggression is the most damaging form.[5]

Rare research by Harvard university shows that children’s repeated and protracted exposure to verbal violence causes post-traumatic stress disorder, but while society legally compels itself to provide humanitarian facilities to refugees fleeing war zones, we forget the most traumatized people within our own borders: the youngest victims of child maltreatment.[6]

What’s really going on with the world that, by the end of their teenage years, we leave kids to society with pedagogic war traumata?

[1]Harvard Health, “In Brief: Names Will Often Hurt You,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, April 2007,

[2]Yvonne M. Vissing et al., “Verbal Aggression by Parents and Psychological Problems of Children,” Child Abuse & Neglect 15 (1991): 224.

[3]Natalie Sachs-Ericsson et al., “Parental Verbal Abuse and the Mediating Role of Self-Criticism,” Journal of Affective Disorders 93 (2006): 71–78.

[4]Stuart N. Hart et al., “Psychological Maltreatment,” in The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, ed. John E.B. Myers, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2011), 127.

[5]Deborah R. Blumenthal, Jennifer Neemann, and Christopher M. Murphy, “Lifetime Exposure to Interparental Physical and Verbal Aggression and Symptom Expression in College Students,” Violence and Victims 13, no. 2 (1998): 175–96.

[6]Harvard Health, “In Brief: Names Will Often Hurt You.”

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