The Truth About "Quiet" Verbal Abuse. 27/1/2017


"What you have to understand is that my mother never
raised her voice and when I confronted her about her treatment of me—her
put-downs and criticisms, how she said I was the problem because I was too
sensitive—that was the first thing she said: ‘How can you accuse me of that
when I never raised my voice, not once, to you or anyone else?’ Well, abuse can
be very quiet." — Kaitlyn, 45

"I felt invisible in my childhood. My mother would ask
me what I wanted to eat and then serve me something else. She’d ask if I were
hungry and if I said I wasn’t, she'd go ahead and make me something and then
look hurt or angry if I didn’t eat it. She did this constantly and it involved
literally every choice. If I wanted red sneakers, she’d buy blue ones. I knew
exactly how little I mattered to her. As an adult, I lack confidence in my own
tastes and judgment." — Alice, 50

It’s not just that the culture assesses verbal abuse as less
damaging than the physical kind—which it is not—but that when most people think
about verbal abuse, they tend to summon up images of someone screaming and
yelling. They imagine that the decibels are loud and the pitch is fevered, and
that the person shouting is out of control, shaking with rage or intent. But
while that’s true in some households, it isn’t always. In fact,
counterintuitively enough, some of the worst kinds of verbal abuse are quiet;
silence in answer to a question asked or a comment made too can pack a mightier
wallop than a loud rant. Silence effectively ridicules and shames.

The child subjected to quiet abuse often experiences more
emotional confusion than one who’s being yelled at or insulted, precisely
because the absence of rage sends mixed signals and the motivation behind
willful silence or a refusal to answer is impossible for a child to read.
There’s a special kind of hurt in being treated as though you’re invisible, or
that you are so unimportant in the scheme of things that you’re not even worth
answering. Is there anything more chilling and hurtful than seeing your mother
act as though she can’t see you, her face calm?

Everything science knows about the effects of verbal abuse
applies to the quiet variety too. As I’ve already noted in another piece (see
the link below), chief among these are:

Alteration of the child’s developing brain

Internalization of the messages conveyed into a
habit of self-criticism, attributing setbacks or mistakes to fixed flaws in

Insecure style of attachment and maladaptive
ways of coping that interfere with healthy ways of relating

Impaired emotional intelligence and problems
managing and regulating emotions

There are specific kinds of “quiet” verbal abuse, each of
which affects a child differently. Of course, the effects don’t end with
childhood but carry over into adulthood in myriad ways. I’ve categorized them
in a descriptive, rather than scientific, manner though research confirms all
of these behaviors.

1. Disappearing Act:
Being Ignored

Much of the information children have about the world and
relationships comes to them second-hand. With a caring and attuned mother who
responds to his or her cues, a child begins to fathom that he or she matters
and is worthy of attention; these are the seeds that yield healthy self-esteem.
The attentive mother communicates the message that “You’re fine just as you
are,” giving the child the courage and confidence to explore the world. But the
child with a mother who ignores her learns instead that her place in the world
is precarious, even though she doesn’t know why.

Thanks to the work of Edward Tronick, his colleagues, and
the “Still-Face” experiments conducted almost forty years ago, we actually know
how being ignored affects infants and toddlers. (At the time, it was widely
believed that infants as young as four or five months didn’t actually interact
with their mothers.) Tronick videotaped mothers interacting with infants who
cooed, pointed, vocalized, and waved their arms in response to their mothers’
smiling faces, words, and gestures. (Keep in mind that using videotape in this
way in 1978 was new and flashy.) Then Tronick had the mothers simply stop and
present a still, expressionless face to their babies. Initially, the babies
continued to vocalize and gesture but when the mothers’ faces continued to be
emotionless, the babies looked away and then began to wail. The tapes show the
infants literally collapsing in their chairs, overwhelmed by feeling.

Studies done with toddlers, capable of speech, showed
precisely the same pattern when their mothers stopped interacting and presented
the still face. They began by trying to re-engage their mothers—doing all the
cute things that usually worked—but when those failed, they turned their backs
on their mothers. Avoidance was preferable to feeling the pain of being
ignored, excluded and loveless.

Of course, in the experiment, the mother’s smiling face
returned and the babies recovered, though not quickly or completely. But served
up on a daily basis, the effects of being ignored on a child’s development are
complex and profound. The coping mechanisms he or she adapts—an anxious or
avoidant attachment style—affect her long past childhood and into adulthood
and, without therapy or some other earned attachment, for life.

2.  Deadly Quiet: Stonewalling

From a child’s perspective, being stonewalled may seem very
much like being ignored but it has different emotional consequences, especially
as he or she matures; intense anger and frustration, directed at the person
stonewalling him or her, may be par for the course. It’s not an accident that
what experts call Demand/Withdraw (essentially ask/stonewall) is considered the
most toxic pattern in relationships. Marital expert John Gottman considers it a
reliable sign that the union of two people is doomed to fail. It’s hard enough
to deal with a stonewalling intimate when you’re an adult—your partner’s
refusal to answer inevitably ratchets up your own frustration and anger—but
it’s absolutely devastating to a child who doesn’t have any way of defending
him or herself.

The child’s lack of developed and effective defense
mechanisms is precisely what researchers in Israel honed in on when they
examined the long-term effects of childhood emotional abuse. They concluded
that the damage done to individuals’ self-esteem had much to do with the
inability to protect and defend themselves and to internalizing the thought
that they weren’t good enough to warrant their parents’ attention when parents
were uncaring or harshly controlling.

3. Wounding Quiet:
Contempt and Derision

Shaming a child can be accomplished sotto voce or even with
physical gestures like eye-rolling or laughing at him or her to convey contempt
or making him or her the butt of jokes. This particular variety of bullying can
become a team sport in some households, if siblings are asked to join the fray
and make the child a scapegoat. Controlling parents or those who need to be the
center of attention often use these techniques to maintain the dynamics of the
household as they want them. Once again, damage can be done without a raised

4. Switch and Bait:

This tool of manipulation is aimed at having the child doubt
his or her perceptions. (The term derives from a play which was then made into
a movie about a man who tries to convince a woman she’s losing her mind.)
Gaslighting doesn’t require shouting or yelling; all it takes is a simple
statement that something that actually happened didn’t. Given the imbalance of
power in the parent-child relationship—and the fact that a young child accepts
the adult as the last word and authority on most things until she gets old
enough to begin questioning her mother’s judgment–gaslighting is relatively
easy. Gaslighting not only makes a child worry about being “crazy” but erodes
her confidence in her own thoughts and feelings in a profound and lasting way.
Again, keep in mind that children don’t have conscious defense mechanisms.

5. For your own good:

In many households, both the loud and the quiet kinds of
verbal abuse are rationalized by the need to correct perceived flaws in the
child’s character or behavior. Hypercriticality—nitpicking and then magnifying
every misstep or mistake—may be “justified” or “explained” by having to make
sure the child “isn’t too full of himself,” “doesn’t let his successes go to
his head,” “learns humility,” “knows who’s boss” and other self-serving
statements that are just excuses for cruel adult behavior. Delivered in a quiet
tone, the barrage of criticism makes a child believe she’s unworthy of
attention and support because she’s worthless.

6.Utter silence: The
absence of praise, support, and love

The power of what it isn’t said cannot be overstated because
the void it leaves in the child’s psyche and heart is enormous. Children are
hardwired to need all the things that the abusive parent neither voices nor
demonstrates in order to thrive and develop normally.  In truth, words that articulate why a child
is worthy of love and attention are as essential as food, water, clothing, and

7. Quiet and Shadows:
Normalizing the Abuse

It’s a sad truth that a child’s world is so small that he or
she thinks that what goes on in it goes on everywhere. Most children attribute
verbal abuse to their flaws and “badness;” as Rachel Goldsmith and Jennifer
Freyd note, this attribution may actually be less scary than “the scarier
prospect that the caregiver can’t be trusted and may help create an illusion of
control.” Even as adults, those verbally abused in the quiet manner during
childhood may rationalize or normalize their parents’ behaviors for many
different reasons. Seeing the ways in which you’ve been wounded by those
charged to love you is hard for women and men alike.


It’s not just that verbal abuse is under-reported but it’s
not written and talked about often enough, and its lasting effects not
understood by the public at large. Let’s buck the trend and start, shall we?
And pay attention to the quiet kind, too.