Bullies come in all forms. Some use physical violence or intimidation. Others use verbal weapons.
Thanks to the evolution of research on adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and human psychology, we now know that the adage “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me” is completely false.
In fact, verbal and emotional abuse can have more severe and long-lasting impact than the worst broken bones.
When it comes to emotional and verbal abuse — or “bullying,” if you want to use a more gentle term — the scars run deep. This is especially the case when the abuse comes from within a family unit.
The Shame Freeze
There was a time when people thought that harsh criticism was an effective means of discipline and driving better behavior.
Studies have shown this is not the case. Criticism, from self or others, shuts us down. It’s a form of shaming.
Shame shuts down the recipient’s nervous system, putting them into fight-flight-freeze mode.
A person who is in a shame freeze can become incapable of accessing resources to defend themselves, or even to physically walk away from the situation.
The Worst Form of Verbal Abuse
The only thing worse than verbal bullying is when it happens in front of others in the family unit and nobody calls it out.
Our silence in the face of this type of shaming makes us complicit in the attack.
When we see this type of abuse happening in front of us, we have a responsibility to call it out.
When we are silent in the face of verbal and emotional abuse, we implicitly tell the bully that their behavior is acceptable.
When we don’t call out the mistreatment, we implicitly tell the recipient that they are not worth standing up for.
Even worse, through our silence we implicitly tell all others who are witnessing the attack that this type of attack on another person is acceptable.
If you wonder where your children learned that harsh words are ok, even though you’ve taught them the value of kindness, look at how you respond when you witness others being berated in public.
Silence in the face of verbal abuse sends the message that — at least in certain circumstances — people “deserve” to be mistreated or berated.
What circumstances qualify? Where do you draw the line?
That’s the slippery slope.
Nobody deserves to be verbally or emotionally abused. Period. End of story. To even imply that someone brought this on themselves is to inflict even more damage.
The Courage to Speak Up
It’s not always convenient or easy to speak up.
It’s easier to sit in silence and be grateful that you’re not the recipient of the attack. This time.
But you are not spared by your silence. To sit in silence while you watch a bully attack a friend or family member is to inflict your own assault on that person. You also inflict harm on yourself, as a part of you wonders when you’ll be the recipient of the bully’s attacks.
When it comes to verbal and emotional abuse in a family setting, there are no innocent bystanders.
The only way to root out injustice is to call it out when we see it. This work begins at home.