Verbal Abuse: Words Can Hit Just as Hard As

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Verbal Abuse:  Words Can Hit Just as Hard As

“He’s driving me crazy. He’s so wild. He can’t do anything right.” These are but a few of the complaints we’ve all heard my cousin make in the presence of her fourteen-year-old son, Jonathan.

TRUE, JONATHAN isn’t the kid any of us were fantasizing about while we were poring through books of names and shopping for a crib. He’s one of those kids you see in restaurants dumping salt onto the table, whining and interrupting, knocking over drinks, continually up and down, provoking fights and asking, “What did I do?” when rebuked. He’s the reason you wish they’d add a “No Brat” restriction to the “No Smoking” section. My cousin’s habitual condemnation of him, I was sure, only added to the kid’s problems.

According to my cousin, the school psychologist — who sounds more like Jackie Mason than a trained professional — tested Jonathan and reported, “He has something like attention deficit disorder, not exactly ADD, not the kind of condition that responds to medication, but he does have problems. His problems are serious, but not that serious, not serious enough so he qualifies to take un-timed tests.” Maybe if there had been a clearer diagnosis, my cousin would be more tolerant. Instead, she and her husband blame the boy and are always angry at him, calling him lazy, worthless and stupid.

My parents were never verbally abusive, but anything they said about me became permanently fixed in my psyche. My mother’s comment, “She’s more fragile than she looks,” made it unlikely that I’ve ever run a marathon or even try to lift more than ten pounds. In those early years, we tend to trust our parents and believe they know who we are. That doctor who administered chemotherapy to herself in the South Pole, I’m sure, wasn’t labeled “fragile” by her parents.

If a seemingly benign comment had such dramatic impact on me, what must repeated berating do to Jonathan?

Intervening is risky, which is why I’d swallowed my urge to suggest that my cousin’s unrelenting disapproval had to be a contributing factor to Jonathan’s discomfort. I suspected she’d construe anything I might say as criticism. But after one particularly heated battle I witnessed between Jonathan and both parents, I called my cousin to say the kid appeared to be crying out for help. I asked if they’d considered family therapy. My cousin said it could be a long and costly process. I pointed out they could afford it and wouldn’t hesitate if this were a medical problem. Happily, she seemed to trust I was on their side, and agreed to consider the suggestion. It would be easier and more productive, I suspected, for them to hear their words characterized as verbally abusive from a therapist than from me.

It’s upsetting to see a kid, even a stranger’s kid, abused — physically or verbally. For years I’d been wincing at Little League games each time Tyler’s father screamed at his son during Little League games, “What are you, blind? Why’d you swing? Why didn’t you swing?” Other parents in the bleachers cringed with me at each remark, but none of us spoke up. I finally worked up the courage to ask the father how Tyler felt about his comments. He shrugged.

“I think my son would be distracted if I called out at the games. He’d probably get angry,” I persisted. This got another shrug and was followed by more yelling at Tyler.

His indifference didn’t discourage me from continuing to play unofficial child advocate. I intervened when Ashley’s mother reacted to her daughter eating cake at a birthday party by announcing, “She’ll be sorry she’s fat when she doesn’t get asked for dates,” and when a mother sitting next to her cranky toddlers laughingly said, “Aren’t there times you just want to kill them?”

Practice doesn’t make it any easier to speak up. Offering unsolicited comments on parenting is risky. I try to inspire trust by being understanding and empathic to the parents, disarming them by letting them know I’ve found myself in similarly stressful situations. I go on to say in my experience, my son has been more receptive when I speak to him privately. If they’re still listening, I tell about a friend who allegedly gave me good advice — that it’s more effective to sound supportive, rather than critical, quoting this pretend expert as having told me, “I’d love for you to straighten up your room,” is apt to get better results than, “You’re a pig.”

No voice is more penetrating than a parent’s. Kids may seem indifferent to what their parents are saying, but they hear the words. My hope is that words from one parent to another will also be heard.