Verbal Abuse Help Guide

Verbal abuse, of all the abuses, seems, on the surface, the least serious. Name calling begins for most of us in the school playground and it is something we are taught to shrug off as of little importance.

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.’

This is the mantra we are taught to chant back at our tormentors. It could, and should be true. But, the fact is that words can harm people, and often harm them very badly indeed. Verbal abuse can cause serious psychological harm. What’s more, the effects of verbal abuse can damage a person’s self confidence and ability to cope with life for many years.


What is verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse can be seen in many forms. Some are simple to recognize, others are not. It’s easy to recognize name calling, for example. When a child shouts that another child is fat and ugly, we have no difficulty in seeing it as verbal abuse. However, when the abuse comes from a trusted source, such as a parent, intimate partner or figure of authority such as your boss or teacher, it is far harder to understand it for what it is. Sometimes, we simply don’t want to accept that such a person would be abusive towards us. The results of such abuse vary. A person can become psychologically destroyed, believing the abusive words to be true and deserved. Or, they may fight back, meeting abuse with abuse (either against the abuser or turning the anger and hurt onto others) and perpetuating the cycle.

Verbal abuse can be easy to escape…or difficult to impossible. If you are meeting verbal abuse from your boss in the workplace, it may be possible to find another job. If you are being abused by a colleague, it’s possible that your boss can help put a stop to it. But, if you are in an intimate relationship or married to the person who is verbally abusing you it can be much harder to walk away. Emotions cloud your judgement, and it takes a long time for many victims to accept that what their partner is doing is, in fact, abuse. Leaving an abusive partner is hard, and not just for emotional reasons. A woman whose partner is verbally abusive is likely to feel that the abuse she is suffering is not as ‘real’ somehow as physical abuse, and may be reluctant to report it or to ask for help for fear of not being taken seriously. It can be even worse for a child who is being verbally abused by a parent or sibling in the home. A child has no means of escape, and if he is forced to grow up enduring this sort of abuse he can become damaged for life.

Understanding verbal abuse

Verbal abuse in relationships

Being caught in a verbally abusive relationship is every bit as damaging and painful as being in a physically abusive relationship. That’s important to understand from the start. No one should have to live with abuse of any sort, and it should always be taken seriously. There is no evidence to show that a man is more likely to be verbally abusive than a woman, or that verbal abuse is more common in heterosexual or homosexual relationships. It is not gender specific and can occur across the social spectrum. It may be more common in some cultures than others, for example, cultures where women are still treated as possessions of men.

Relationships can be a hot bed for verbal abuse. There are many levels on which this type of problem, can occur within a relationship, and often neither partner realizes that what is taking place is actually abuse. A look at some relationship scenarios can make this clearer:

  • A partner may see it as his place and his right to give orders and criticism to his partner.
  • A person who is in some way of higher standing (socially, intellectually, professionally, financially) may mete out verbal abuse as a result of a misplaced sense of entitlement. It can begin with a simple: ‘Do it my way because I know more about it than you’, but can creep into all areas of a couple’s life together.
  • An abuser may believe that their abuse is justified if the victim has ‘deserved it’ somehow. Often, an abuser will become so convinced that their partner has somehow brought the abuse on themselves that they then manage to convince the victim to believe this as well.
  • An abuser sometimes holds a firm belief that one person can rightfully hold and wield power over another.
  • A certain type of abuser is unable to empathize with his partner. He is unable to put himself in their place or to imagine how his abuse might make them feel. Such people may suffer a personality disorder such as narcissism, or be somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
  • A person who habitually verbally abuses his partner can come to be unable to see any good in the victim of his abuse. He begins to feel that she has no worth.

How to see if you are in a verbally abusive relationship: Trying to separate your emotions and the way you habitually are with your partner isn’t easy to do. But, if you raise the subject with your partner and he or she professes to have a genuine wish to heal the relationship, you need to know the sort of things that should be discussed. For example, your partner needs to show a genuine concern for you and your well being. If his conversations with you revolve around him, rather than you, he has not let go of the habit of verbal abuse and is still unable to empathize with you. It is vital, if things are to change, that the abusive partner tries to really understand your emotions and the way that the abuse has made you feel.

So, what are the things you need to hear from someone who wants to change and rekindle a loving relationship? Look for questions like the following:

  • What do you want from your life…for yourself, not concerning me?
  • What is it that upsets you about me?
  • What can I do differently so as to make you happy?
  • What  makes you happy?
  • What makes you sad?
  • Do I show enough interest in your hopes and dreams?
  • Have I told you how much I appreciate you?
  • Do you believe you could bring yourself to give me another chance? If not, I understand. I’ve been selfish and abused you and you deserve so much better.
  • I accept this is my problem, and mine alone. You have done nothing to deserve it, and it is me that needs to change and work on this, not you.
  • I am undergoing counselling and I know that this will be a long process. But, I am going to stick with it for as long as it takes.

Verbal abuse and domestic violence

Understanding more about verbal abuse helps you to see that there is a real relationship between verbal abuse and domestic violence. Abuse that begins as verbal often escalates into physical and violent abuse as the balance of power becomes more and more in favor of the abuser who cannot help exerting more and more control.
Like verbal abuse, domestic violence attacks a person’s self belief, and is often hidden away. Violent partners often begin their attacks with verbal abuse, telling the victim that they ar responsible for the abuse, that they deserve it and the whole situation is their fault. Thus, verbal abuse can make a domestic violence assault even more dangerous than the physical violence alone. If a victim is hit, without verbal abuse, chances are that she can see the attack for what it is and be clear minded enough to report it or get help.

When an attack is accompanied by verbal abuse, however, this is often not the case. It can be the words themselves that cause more damage as the victim’s spirit crumbles and they lose all sense of reality. Once a person’s self confidence and belief systems are attacked they quickly weaken and the effects of the damage to the psyche are felt long after bruises or cuts have healed. Violent people use verbal abuse to strengthen their control and to make their victims afraid to ask for help or to leave them.

Victims of domestic abuse (verbal and physical) may try to avoid the abuse by becoming overly ‘nice’. This simply doesn’t work, in addition to perpetuating the mistaken belief that you yourself are responsible for your partner’s abuse. An abusive partner may tell you that if you do this, or don’t do that, the abuse will stop as you no longer deserve it, but whatever you do they will find ways to blame you for something else and the abuse will begin again.

Think of it this way. If a burglar breaks into your house, he won’t stop just because you are polite or nice to him. If you are mugged in the street, the mugger won’t stop if you are ‘nice’ to him. It’s the same with an abuser. It is his behavior that has to be adjusted, not yours. In fact, modifying your behavior can worsen the abuse as the abuser gains more and more control and enjoys the power he has over you. Making you behave as he wants is exactly what the abuse is all about. It isn’t the actual behavior, it is the sense of controlling you that he seeks.

Verbal abuse in schools

Much ‘bullying’ in schools is verbal rather than physical. This can make it harder to see and even harder to deal with. A campaign of whispering and name calling among peers can really destroy a child’s confidence even though a teacher may never see or hear what is going on. Children and young pople are very vulnerable to suggestion as they have not yet had time to develop self belief. Peer group opinion is terribly important to them. If a child is told, over and over, that he is fat and lazy, or stupid and ugly, the words begin to seem true to him. Kids pick up on these type of insults too, and the name calling spreads far beyond the original group involved in the abuse as other children seek to ‘fit in’ and go along with the abuse.

Just like in the instance of domestic verbal abuse and domestic violence, name calling at school can lead to physical abuse too. Sometimes a fight may ensue if a child decides to ‘fight back’ and lashes out at his abuser. In other cases the abuse can intensify and become violent. Even the abusing child or children begin to believe their own words over time.

Verbal abuse in schools is a serious problem that can spread far beyond the playground and cause long lasting psychological damage.

Verbal abuse and children

We’ve looked at verbal abuse in schools and how badly it can affect children who are subjected to it, but what about verbal abuse in the home?

The home environment is hugely influential on a child and shapes the person that that child will become. Therefore, not only does an abusive home often produce broken or abusive children, a home where a child’s tentative and natural verbal outbursts are not correctly handled can also lead to creating an abusive adult.

All children engage in some sort of power struggles with their parents and siblings at times. These often involve a level of name calling and shouting. Of course, at this point there is no dangerous intentional abuse involved, but the situations need to be handled carefully.

There are several issues regarding verbal abuse that can crop up in a home or family environment.

  • How to handle a situation when a child calls you or another family member names
  • How to handle a situation where a child is enduring verbal abuse at school
  • How to handle the subject of verbal abuse if you have been a victim of this in the past…especially if this has been from an ex partner who is related to the child.
  • How to deal with your child’s naughtiness without becoming verbally abusive yourself.

One of the most important things that you can do to help your children grow into emotionally healthy adults is to instill a strong sense of self esteem from the very beginning. Be sure to praise and encourage them whenever they achieve things, and empathize, explain and guide them when they don’t. Explain why some behaviors are wrong, and set rules that are clear to understand and comply with. Be firm but fair.

Never take out your frustrations on the child. If you feel angry, take a few minutes to calm down and think before you speak to the child. The way that you behave and speak to him will influence the way he deals with his own anger and frustrations with others.

Building confidence in your child also entails allowing them to work things out for themselves and to make their own mistakes sometimes. Give them time and encouragement to learn rather than doing everything for them. Sympathize if they fail, but show them how to succeed next time. Praise their successes and appreciate their talents.

Set up a good communication network with your child too. Set aside times for talking every day, so your child always feels that she has a chance to safely express her feelings and frustrations. Listen to her, and let her know that her feelings have validity with you. Allow your child to take responsibility where it is safe to do so, and to make her own choices.

If your child comes into contact with verbal abuse within the family, don’t just ignore it. Addressing the issue is vital in instilling a healthy way of thinking for the child. For example, if a family member is abusive to another within the child’s hearing, find a good place and time to explain to the child that what was said was wrong and unacceptable even if it came from a respected family member. Understanding that even Granddad can be wrong will help your child to recognize good and bad behavior throughout life. Teach your child to handle peer abuse too, so they are prepared for this when they leave the home and go to school. Explain that insults are not right and never justified, and give them a coping mechanism such as replying: ‘ You’re wrong. I am not accepting this, so go away and think about it.’

Verbal abuse in the workplace

The workplace is another common environment for verbal abuse to occur. In an office or work environment, some people have dominance over others. This is an unavoidable fact of working life. However, this provides a situation that can all too easily turn to abuse.

A boss who rubbishes your work, or a colleague who continually puts you down are trying to establish power and control in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons. They may be trying to compensate for their own inadequacies and lack of confidence or even lack of ability. Putting down a person whose work is better than theirs makes them feel more worthwhile themselves.
Sometimes, other reasons can underlie verbal abuse at work. A boss who grew up in an abusive family may simply be behaving in the only way he knows how to interact with others.

The problem for the victim is compounded if the verbal abuse comes from the boss, as co workers may pick up on what is being said and begin to believe it themselves, just because the boss says so. It becomes even more of a problem if the boss appears to be ‘nice’ to everyone else, validating his reputation and making others believe that he cannot be at fault. In fact, abusers of all types frequently choose only one victim and are able to behave normally to others. This does not mean that the victim is in any way at fault or responsible for the abuse. An abusive boss or colleague may choose the victim for a number of reasons. He may be afraid that your talents will eclipse his, as the workplace can be a highly competitive environment.

There are options for those being verbally abused at work. You can simply ask your abuser to stop, privately and publicly. This might work…or it might escalate the abuse as the abuser fights harder for control and feels unfairly attacked. You may be able to enlist the support of other colleagues or a superior boss who occupies a position higher in the comany than your abuser. Or, you can take your case to a tribunal. Finally, if all else fails you can leave.

Facts about verbal abuse

Verbal abuse is much harder to quantify than physical abuse. It is easily hidden and rarely reported unless it escalates to levels that lead to violence. However, certain things are known about it.

  • Verbal abuse can lead to physical abuse.
  • Verbal abuse is every bit as real and destructive as physical abuse.
  • Verbal abuse is about one person trying to control another.
  • Verbal abuse is the fault of the abuser, not the victim.
  • A child who grows up in a verbally abusive environment is likely to perpetuate the behavior in adulthood if it is not addressed.
  • Verbal abuse can be stopped and an abuser can learn to change. However, this is just as difficult as changing from being physically abusive and almost always requires professional help.
  • A person who is habitually verbally abusive can only change if they accept full responsibility for the problem. If your abusive partner continues to place some of the blame on you he is not committed to change.
  • It can be harder for a person to leave a verbally abusive relationship than one which is physically abusive.
  • There is help available for those who are suffering verbal abuse. Many domestic violence helplines can advise and support even if there is no physical abuse threatened or taking place.
  • Men can be the victims of verbal abuse just as can women.
  • Verbal abuse often increases over time.
  • Verbal abuse can have serious, long term effects.
  • Verbal abuse attacks and destroys a person’s self confidence and core beliefs.

What to do if you are suffering from verbal abuse

If you are a victim of verbal abuse, there are several things that you can do to help yourself. Firstly, you need to really accept that you are not to blame. The fault lies firmly and squarely with your abuser.

  • You may feel able to begin by talking to your abuser. If you have the confidence to do this, it’s a good idea to spend some time planning what you are going to say and consider in advance what sort of responses you are going to have to deal with. A confronted abuser is likely to be in denial, and will argue strongly that the abuse is your fault not theirs. Being ready for these responses enables you to stand firm and to reiterate what you know is right. If necessary, say your piece and then ask the abusive person to take time to go away and think about what you have said. This can take the ‘self defense’ reaction out of the equation. However, it is also necessary to understand that there are no quick fixes. An abusive person needs time to change and the process is always painful and requires commitment.
  • You can obtain help from domestic violence helplines and websites. You do not have to be suffering physical attacks to enlist help from these sources. Emotional and verbal abuse is just as dangerous as physical abuse, and the help is offered to sufferers of all kinds of domestic abuse.
  • If you are being abused in the workplace, you can enlist the help of colleagues, speak to a superior or take the problem to an official tribunal. You can also decide to leave the abusive work environment and find another job.
  • If you are being verbally abused at school, you have similar options. A strong support group  of peers can help greatly. If this is not available to you, try talking to a teacher or to your parents or other trusted adults in your circle. There are also anti bullying organisations and hotlines that can offer experienced and expert help and advice. Remember: You are not the first or only person to have experienced verbal abuse even if you feel isolated. Help is there for you. Don’t be afraid to call for help. You will be taken seriously.
  • If you are suffering from any kind of abuse you can always go to talk to your family doctor or social worker, who should be able to recommend sources of help or prescribe counselling where necessary.

Treatments for victims of domestic abuse often involve counselling to help them to recover their self confidence. Peer groups of sufferers are also very helpful, allowing victims to share experiences and help each other. Writing down your experiences and feelings can also be cathartic, as can joining internet groups of fellow sufferers.

What to do if you suspect someone you know is being verbally abused

The type of action that you should take varies according to the individual circumstances. If the victim is a child and the abuse is taking place at school, your first port of call should be the head teacher or a teacher with direct responsibility for that child, such as a class teacher or student mentor. However, if you suspect that a child is being verbally abused within his family, it is a little more complex. If you have a very strong relationship with a close family member, it may be possible to moot the topic, but families can be complicated and defensive for a number of reasons. It may be better to take advice from the professionals through helplines or your family doctor.

If the abused person is a friend, and the abuse is taking place within a marriage or an  intimate relationship, you can try getting them to talk to you about the problem. If they do so, listen and offer support. Don’t be judgmental, it isn’t helpful for the victim to hear you say that if you were being treated like that you would leave…she may not feel strong enough to do so for a number of reasons. Respect her opinions and feelings. You can offer physical support, such as a safe place to stay should she decide to leave the abusive partner. You could also provide her with contacts for organisations that could help and let her use your telephone or computer to make contact in safety.


The list below is not comprehensive, but provides links to known available help. For local help, internet search your state, province or county. These organisations should not ask for money in return for help. If any do, search again for charities and organisations that offer the help for free.

Resources for victims of abuse (general):


  •  The Samaritans helpline will answer calls and provide support to anyone in crisis or who is considering committing suicide.
  • Voice UK: Helpline 0808 802 8686
    Telephone support and information for adults and children with learning disabilities who have been abused, and for their families and carers.
  • Mind (National Association for Mental Health): 0845 766 0163
  • SupportLine: 01708 765200, email [email protected]– Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to children, young adults and adults on any issue. Aimed at those who are isolated, vulnerable, at risk groups and victims of any form of abuse
  • Childline: 0800 – Free national helpline for children and young people in danger and distress. Also booklets on bullying
  • Kidscape Campaign for Children’s Safety: Admin 020 7730 3300Helpline 08451 205 204, – Telephone helpline providing support for parents and produce free parents guides on issues relating to bullying. Also run one day courses for children who have been severely bullied.
  • Worldwide:
  • Befrienders network operates worlwide to help those in crisis. The link allows you to find your nearest service.
  • Resources for victims of domestic abuse (including elder and spousal abuse):
  • US:
  •  National Domestic Violence hotline.
  • Provides comprehensive programs of assistance for victims of domestic abuse. Contains many links to help.
  •  A directory of shelters providing help for women escaping domestic violence.
  • UK:
  • Aanchal: 0845 451 2547 (serves London area)
    24 hour telephone helpline and services for Asian women who have experienced domestic violence, emotional support, group work and counseling. (based E15).
  • SupportLine: 01708 765200
    email [email protected]
    Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to Children, Young Adults and Adults on any issue including domestic violence.
  • Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Action on Elder Abuse: 0808 808 8141
  • Broken Rainbow: 0300 999 5428
    Support for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people suffering domestic violence.
  • The Freedom Programme: 01547 520228
    A 12 week rolling programme for women who wish to learn about the reality of domestic violence and abuse.
  • Hidden Hurt:

    Abuse Information and Support Site.
  • Jewish Women’s Aid: 0808 801 0500
    Services for Jewish women experiencing domestic violence.
  • Rights of Women – 020 7251 6577
    Telephone legal advice service for women.
    Sexual Violence Legal AdviceLine: 020 7251 8887 (phone) or 020 7490 2562 (textphone)
     Mondays 11am-1pm and Tuesdays 10am-12 noon.
  • Scottish Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 027 1234
    24 hour Helpline providing information and support for those affected by domestic abuse.
  • Southall Black Sisters: 020 8571 9595
    Advice, information and emotional support for black and Asian women.
  • Wales Domestic Abuse: Helpline 0808 80 10 800 
    24 hour helpline free and confidential for anybody experiencing or concerned about someone experiencing domestic abuse (women, men and children).
  • Victim Support Helpline: 0845 30 30 900
  • Worldwide:
  •  Worldwide help for victims of domestic abuse.

There are also several books by Patricia Evans, an authority on the subject of verbal abuse, that might be helpful.

Verbal abuse should never be dismissed as unimportant or taken lightly. No one who is being abused should be left feeling that the best they can do is to ignore what is happening. Verbal abuse is dangerous, insidious and serious.