IN FORMER YEARS
I know that I wasn’t the only child to be reminded of the saying if I complained about something that someone had said that upset me. Not only was this a message from home, but I am sure it was one that was given at school too. Were we, as children then, different compared with children now? Or is it that the world surrounding today’s children is so much more complex than was the case 60, 40, 20 or even only 10 years ago? It’s hard to say as I am looking back on my childhood with the eyes of an adult, and on the childhood of my sons with the benefit of hindsight. But, I do feel that we obviously didn’t have as many of the added extras that so many children are surrounded with now. Life in general seemed to trog along at a slower pace. It lacked the frenetic pace of every minute seemingly having to be filled with activity for so many; with little time to simply ‘be’. How well I remember myself and a group of friends after playing, simply sitting on the wall or on the swings and talking.
Maybe the saying was appropriate for those different times, or was it really? What of now?
OK, there may be occasions when there is a seemingly petty little spat. It can then go on to include harsh words. Words that are soon followed by an apology, maybe a hug to help to smooth things over. Such words are likely to be forgiven and forgotten – so I wonder if this was and remains a scenario for which that saying could apply? However, where do we draw the line between ‘it’ not being significant and being harmful? We don’t, as it is one of those many things that is not only a continuum, but also a continuum very much affected by the personality, character, resilience of the child/adolescent/adult on the receiving end. What affects one person very deeply is apparently water off a duck’s back to another.
Do today’s children cope with name calling, taunting words being thrown at them with only one aim – to hurt. No matter by whom or where the words are being delivered, it is verbal abuse. Is it just something that is more talked about today, or does it really happen so much more? There are always stories of bullying, seemingly endemic in some schools. Sadly, there are stories of far too many of our young people having mental health problems as a result of this bullying and far too many feeling that the only way that they can draw a line under the abuse is by making this a permanent line by way of suicide.
I wonder if that phrase – verbal abuse - was ever used when I was young? Or when my sons were young? It may have been described as bullying, but I am sure would still have been met with the retort of sticks and stones…. were expectations of how much our children were affected by the words different? Were our children more resilient? Is today’s fast pace of life not allowing for healing? Is it the immediacy of the back-up provided by the ever present mobile phones, texting, social media that is compounding the issue and making it so hard to ignore? To ignore at our peril considering the statistics around mental health issues amongst the younger generation – and statistics showing that between 2010 and 2017, teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67%. Whilst the figures present a stark image, it is important to also consider the devastation caused to the families and friends of the young people involved for whom the questions, the despair is hard to imagine. OK, I am not saying that verbal abuse is the sole reason for the suicide rate increase, as many other factors – the topic of an upcoming blog – come in to play. However, it needs to be taken into consideration as one of the reasons for a future appearing so bleak that it cannot be faced.
WHAT DOES VERBAL ABUSE INCLUDE?
One aspect that is included, although seemingly a contradiction is the silent treatment. It is described in a recent article on ‘Healthline’. It includes the cold shoulder, ignoring and thereby isolating from peer groups or previous friendship groups. The silence can also be part of a pattern of verbal abuse with taunts, name calling, nasty comments being interspersed with periods of silence. This can lead to a building up of tension as the person on the receiving end waits for the next verbal onslaught. The same technique as effectively used by horror film makers!
That taunting, name calling can be loud, in your face stuff obvious to those around who may well be aiding and abetting the process. The words of humiliation, ridicule, hatred, threat, are obvious. Such verbal attacks seem to be understood and seen as a bad thing by others.
Alternatively, the words can be much more subtly used often with implicated if not actually stated suggestions along the lines of it being for ‘your own good that I am telling you’. If the person becomes upset, more grist to the mill for further verbal abuse around not being so sensitive, or a suggestion that they can’t even take a joke. With this scenario, others are frequently unaware of it happening. This adds to the feelings of isolation through a lack of belief, or understanding from those others. Maybe a case in which these others may even have suggested a more updated version of the sticks and stones saying, such as ‘don’t let them bug you.’ or ‘don’t let the buggers grind you down!’.
JUDGE NOT OTHERS BY HOW YOU REACT
Most of us are only able to understand how WE would deal with such tormenting, lies and untruths thrown at us, that verbal abuse. For others, it could be that they are less able to bat off the words threatening to become an ear worm. We are all different. Maybe those words are the straw about to break that particular camel’s back. They could well be deepening an already existing wound, or opening an old one only temporarily sealed. Could that person be fighting to not be bugged with the failure to do so actually adding to the levels of angst?
The words, as with sticks and stones, are causing hurt. The words of supposed encouragement, maybe given by friends or parents some time ago, possibly many years ago, are having the opposite effect to the intended one. Those messages given as children remain with us into our adult lives. Just as I can readily recite a poem or sing a hymn learnt at junior school, so I can recall my parents telling me about those sticks and stones. I hold my hand up to the fact that I have used one of those proverbial sticks to beat myself up for letting words flung at me cause an even greater hurt than any stick could ever achieve.
The prime targets for all forms of verbal abuse are those deemed to be different from the majority. More or less clever; adroit or not good enough in sporting events; taller, shorter; heavier, lighter; more or less well developed sexually with more or less physical evidence of this. Add gender differences, colour, creed, family structure. So much material for those verbal abusers, the bullies, to make use of as their chosen weapon of attack. The vast majority of us like to feel that we fit in, that our face fits with those around us in familial, friendship, work, leisure groupings. Yes, there are those who like to stand out, who actively choose to stand out as being different. In many cases this is a genuine need for individuality, whilst for others, it may be a mask of difference worn to cover the enforced, unwanted, unasked for feeling of difference already imposed on them.
HOW CAN WE STOP VERBAL ABUSE?
Words can be used in a loving way to build you up, but they are also used to bring you down and to cause hurt. Those words leave scars, just as with physical abuse. In fact, the scars can take longer to heal than a physical scar as the words can be played over and over in the mind. They can even be re-read, re-listened to if messages sent on that ever-present weapon of the mobile phone. The solution of simply deleting said messages seems a far easier one for others to suggest than for the receiver to achieve.
Standing your ground and arguing, or simply putting your case generally, in the majority of instances, does little to aid your cause. Such are usually seen as an additional sign of weakness, almost a begging for the words to stop - which further empowers the abuser.
There are those who feel that by, as suggested in the Bible, turning the other cheek. For me, this concept depends on whether we take that literally, or one step further as in walking completely away from the situation. I feel that there are circumstances when entirely cutting the abuser from your life is a really positive, self-caring thing to do. You are removing yourself from further abuse which would continue to affect you. Of course this removal would have to include number blocking, removal from social media sites etc. However, this doesn’t always switch off the words and rarely heals the hurt caused. However, it is an important first step.
That first step is easier if there is only one person flinging around those hurtful words, than if there are others who may go on to take over the lead role. Easier if you have someone there to support you through the process. If you have shared what is happening to you with someone who listens – a parent, teacher, trusted friend who would point you in the direction of more experienced support. OK, schools are hopefully improving with the support they offer, though teachers lack the necessary time and space to adequately listen, or the resources to have trained counsellors as a part of the staff. For many, it is the voluntary sector that once again picks up the pieces by way of offering someone with whom that healing process can begin within the school setting.
Such support is vital and, having listened, parents, carers, teachers should enable the young person to find professional support, or begin with a support group. Likewise, friends of adults who have been verbally abused would do well to support in a similar way. Yes, it is good to listen to the outpouring of hurt, but healing involves steps which go well beyond this.
SO BACK TO MY INTRO –
Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but names/words can well break your spirit, your confidence, your self-esteem – thereby affecting your future and how you see your life ahead shaping up. It was not a good message then, and surely isn’t a good message now. Maybe, by having had the message drummed in to us, and it remaining lurking somewhere is our psyche, it has made some of us struggle longer than we may otherwise have done if we hadn’t tried to bravely ignore those words?
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