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Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones ... But Words Can Be Even More Painful

The power of words becomes clear after listening to a powerful speech that leaves you feeling motivated, or when a moving passage from a novel brings tears to your eyes.

But when it comes to causing pain, the power of words may still be vastly underestimated.

Kids who are routinely teased and called names can develop low self-esteem and may grow up to be angry adults.

"Hurtful words can haunt you all your life and may lead to heart disease, depression, suicide or stress," said W. Penn Handwerker, a medical anthropologist. Not surprisingly, those that have the most impact are words that come from people we admire or who have some power over our lives: teachers, spouses, parents and peers.

And while a bruise will eventually disappear, "words can hurt your soul," said Stephen Wessler, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine.

Kids Using Words as Weapons

Studies have found that when it comes to bullying, verbal assaults are even more painful than physical ones. "Words create fear and can be construed to contain the promise of future violence. The emotional impact on victims can range from low-level anxiety to paralyzing fear," Wessler said.

It is estimated that 160,000 students miss school everyday because they're afraid of being harassed. What's more, name-calling and other forms of abuse are precursors to actual violence in schools. Wessler, who worked as a prosecutor for the Maine attorney general's office, explained that when he was called into schools for cases of violence, it was typically the last stage of a much longer battle.

"The violence had actually begun days or months before with verbal harassment," he said.

Another study of over 300 students in England found that verbal abuse had a significant and lasting impact on children's self-esteem. One-third of the students who had been bullied suffered from post-traumatic stress as a result.

"This study shows bullying, and particularly name-calling, can be degrading for adolescents," said Dr. Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at Warwick University. "It is important that peer victimization is taken seriously as symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and depression are common among victims and have a negative impact on psychological health."

Adults' Words Leave Lasting Impression on Kids

When an adult, such as a teacher or parent, regularly berates a child, the words can influence the child's future personality, academic success and adult life.

"Words and acts become chronic stressors when a child hears them regularly. Phrases such as 'you disappoint me' do their work on our bodies even more insidiously than words like 'you are stupid!' because they don't elicit a clear stress response," says Handwerker. "Children's brains continue to grow and develop through adolescence. Words like these have effects that last a lifetime, because they change how the brain develops and thus how it works in adulthood."

The result? "Slow death resulting from chronic pain, fatigue, or headaches, or from use of alcohol or drugs, or other destructive behaviors," Handwerker says.

Further, according to Alice Pope, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at St. John's University, growing up in a harsh home environment, in which parents use "power assertive techniques" like yelling, name-calling and physical punishment, affects the child later in life. These children often become angry and aggressive, develop fear of punishment and "tend to identify with and model such aggressive authority figures."

Words hurt adults too, and can leave us feeling depressed, hopeless and of little worth.

Verbal Abuse Among Adults

Kids are not the only ones wounded by harsh words. In relationships, on the job and in day-to-day life, adults are also bombarded with, and affected by, hurtful words. Spouses who are confronted with regular verbal abuse develop feelings of self-doubt, low self-worth, hopelessness and depression. They may become withdrawn and angry and start to suffer physical effects as well.

Likewise, people stuck in emotionally hazardous work environments, in which their bosses or coworkers use name-calling, belittling words, negative gossip, threats or ultimatums, are more likely to:

  • Be absent from work

  • Lack focus and concentration

  • Use insurance for medical conditions (many of which are brought on by the stress)

  • Intentionally or unintentionally sabotage the workplace due to their unhappiness

Getting Help

Adults who are stuck in verbally abusive relationships or work environments should seek help from a trusted friend, counselor or health professional. A new job or change in relationship may be warranted.

Children, unfortunately, are often less able to change their circumstances when faced with verbally abusive peers, outside of transferring schools or a family move.

If your child is being bullied, tell him or her not to react, but to ignore the bully, walk away and get help if pursued. Alternatively, tell your child to report bullying immediately to a trusted adult, and contact the school and teacher yourself.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, be sure to invest time in teaching your kids to care. With the increasing amounts of violence on TV, in video games and in the world around us, it's easy to become desensitized. Raising caring kids is more essential now than ever.

Recommended Reading

Would You Know if Your Child Were Being Bullied? 4 Tips to Keep Them From Becoming a Victim

The Emotionally Hazardous Work Environment: Is it Worth the Price You Pay?


BBC News: Name-Calling Worst Form of Bullying

School Violence Starts With Verbal Abuse

University of Connecticut Advance: Hurtful Words Can Have Physical Effect

Bullies: More Than Sticks, Stones and Name-Calling

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