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
"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,"
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
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
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
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of Connecticut Advance: Hurtful Words Can Have Physical Effect
More Than Sticks, Stones and Name-Calling