Verbal Abuse Can Damage the Brain

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Aijju Prasetyo / Pixabay

Verbal abuse damages the brain

Source: Aijju Prasetyo / Pixabay

A recently published meta-analysis on childhood verbal abuse found that although it has been well-established in research to do comparable damage as physical and sexual abuse, verbal abuse continues to receive less attention and is not taken as seriously by child welfare, clinical, and judicial systems. The authors characterize verbal abuse as “shouting, yelling, denigrating the child, and verbal threats.”

This description also applies to scenarios beyond childhood where there is a distinct power imbalance. Verbal abuse requires a perpetrator and target(s). The targets are obviously in positions where it is all but impossible to defend or retaliate because of their dependent position: a child depends on adults (parents, teachers, coaches); actors depend on directors and producers; employees depend on employers. In a marriage, one spouse frequently depends on the other for financial or other kinds of security, thereby creating the conditions for all forms of abuse, including verbal.

In 2019, the definition of verbal abuse was refined by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children to show that this kind of abuse weaponizes both verbal and non-verbal strategies to spurn a target. This kind of abuse can range from ignoring, refusal of feedback, and silent treatment to “acts that reject and degrade a child through belittling, degrading, shaming, ridiculing, singling out a child and criticizing, humiliating in public, and other nonphysical forms of hostile or rejecting treatment.” In the adult world, these are the kinds of abuses frequently reported in workplace bullying.

Safe Physical and Psychological Environments Are Needed

This meta-analysis of research dates back to 1979 when a clinical test was developed to assess the verbal abuse to which children over the age of 11 were being exposed. Data reveals that in recent decades, while physical and sexual abuse appears to be declining, childhood verbal abuse is on the rise.

This increase in verbal abuse is surprising when decades of research have established that just “as children require nurturing, safe, and supportive physical environments from adult caregivers, they also require communication from adults that does not denigrate but promotes healthy self-concept and development.” Both the physical and the verbal environment must be safe if we in fact want to raise healthy children, have healthy schools, arts and sports programs, as well as have healthy workplaces.

This meta-analysis was published a few weeks ago, and yet in 2023, we continue to use prevention in our physical settings to establish safety but do not take the same approach in our psychological or emotional settings. In short, we tend to protect bodies but not brains. We strive to ensure homes, schools, sports activities, and workplaces reduce the risk of injury, are safe from fire and other calamities, and have strong foundations to prevent collapse. In what ways do we strive to ensure that these same settings prevent and thus protect from the damaging, destructive force of verbal abuse?

The Damage to Brain Architecture From Verbal Abuse is Visible on Brain Scans

In my book The Bullied Brain published in 2022, I looked specifically at the impact of verbal abuse on the brain done by adults to children. I cited Dr. Martin Teicher’s work among many other scientists. He conducted a study of 1,000 young adults to see if verbal abuse harmed brains. His research revealed that “verbal abuse could be as damaging to psychological functioning as the physical kind.” Then he examined bullying done by peers in childhood.

Dr. Teicher studied the impacts of “teasing, ridicule, criticism, screaming, and swearing” from one child to another. Brain scans showed that the corpus callosum (bundle of fibres that link the left and right brain hemispheres) was demyelinated. Myelin is a key insulator that allows for faster, more efficient communication in the brain. When it is eroded, the brain cannot optimize its performance. As Dr. Michael Merzenich pointed out to me, Teicher’s research focused on the corpus callosum, but that does not mean many other areas of the brain were not also negatively impacted.

This is one of hundreds of examples of physical harm to the brain from bullying and abuse, including verbal abuse, which does not touch the body. In the last 20 years, scientists have documented the “neurological scars” that all forms of bullying and abuse can leave on the brain. These invisible injuries (invisible to the naked eye, but not to brain imaging) can manifest as aggression, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, etc.

If Verbal Abuse Damages the Brain, It Shouldn’t Be Normalized

It is time for child welfare, clinical, and judicial systems to understand and implement legal reforms that recognize that verbal abuse can be as harmful to the brain as physical and sexual abuse. As cited in The Bullied Brain, fMRI studies show that youth subjected to physical abuse and those subjected to emotional abuse have comparable brain traumas as “combat soldiers.” Soldiers are often treated for PTSD. How many children and youth get a diagnosis of PTSD and the appropriate treatment?

If it is against the law to damage someone’s body, it should be against the law to damage their brain. Due to non-invasive technology, we have scientific evidence of the physical harm done to brains from verbal abuse and yet we have not seen governments reform laws or issue widespread communication strategies to change the normalization of conduct that is costing lives and billions in poor mental health and health outcomes.

It’s time for us to get educated and to advocate for the kinds of legal reforms we saw happen with smoking when it became exposed, once again through non-invasive technology (the X-ray), that cigarettes were correlated with cancer. While we wait for policy writers and lawmakers, every one of us can strive to choose our words carefully, never use put-downs, be mindful of our tone of voice, strive to take deep breaths before yelling, never respond to others with ignoring or silence, and create support groups to remind us and hold us accountable when we fear overreacting and misusing our verbal power.

When we see an adult ignoring, ostracizing, shaming, yelling at, threatening, berating, or humiliating a child or youth, we must speak up. The same intervention needs to happen in sports, arts, the workplace, and everywhere power imbalances create the conditions for verbal abuse to occur. It’s not easy to speak up, but there is power in numbers. Today in 2023, we would never sit quietly by if someone lit up a cigarette in a school or at work. Likewise, it’s time to prohibit the cancerous impact of verbal abuse on brains.

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