Verbal abuse is as devastating as other forms of abuse but is still widely accepted in most societies and in our Guyanese context, is seemingly the norm. The impact of verbal abuse on Guyanese children ranges from low self-esteem to suicidal thoughts and behaviour. The Child Rights Alliance (CRA) Counsellor/Trainer, Stacy Parris, noted these observations as member organizations from the CRA continue with sensitization and counselling sessions in Regions Three, Four and Five. The CRA counsellors currently conduct one on one counselling with 43 students. Seventeen of the 43 cases, or 40 percent, involve verbal abuse of children by their parents/carers. When a parent has to deal with misbehavour or disrespect the parent quickly becomes frustrated. In their frustration, parents verbally abuse their children using harsh words and derogatory comments as a means to discipline.
“Verbal abuse is equally destructive and damaging like all other forms of abuse and can have adverse effects on children.” Parris noted. “It affects the personal well being of the child and causes him/her to feel worthless. In some cases children felt that there is no point of their existence.” This was made clear in a recent case.
“A parent approached me at a school where I was conducting sessions and related that her 14 year old daughter attempted to take her life by consuming a large quantity of pills. The parent could not understand why her child would do that. She kept saying, “I don’t know why my daughter would want to do this? I provide everything for her. I love her, I don’t beat her.” After several counselling sessions with the child, I concluded that the child’s attempt on her life was as a result of the mother’s verbal abuse. The child revealed that her mother would make constant statements such as, “You are stupid” and “You should just jump in front of a car”. These remarks are usually said whenever they have disagreements. The disagreements stem from the mother’s desire to control every aspect of her daughter’s life. This was even in trivial matters such as her daughter choosing a different footwear for a social event than the one the mother approved of. The mother grew up in an environment where she had no control over any aspect of her life. She unconsciously tried to control every aspect of her daughter’s life. Whenever her daughter deviated, the mother became verbally abusive.”
Parris met with the mother who initially denied being verbally abusive and controlling. She did not realize the effects of her words and actions. Additionally, the mother was experiencing lingering effects of abuse she suffered as a child.
“The mother was physically and verbally abused in the home when she was a child and was also sexually abused by an outsider.” Parris explained. “The mother revealed the sexual abuse to her parents but they chose to ‘cover up’ the issue. So in this mother’s mind, she is a better parent. Her daughter was not physically abused and she ensured, as far as possible, that her daughter is not in a position to be sexually abused. But the verbal abuse component was there. She could not rationalize that she was hurting her child through the insults. As a result, counselling for the mother was also required which focused on repairing the relationship with her and her daughter.”
The Counsellor/ Trainer noted that many Guyanese are aware of what constitutes verbal abuse. Examples of verbal abuse include using strong or threatening language, teasing, intimidation, insults, bullying and humiliation. These examples are common in the everyday conversations of adults and children because they can be easily disguised as friendly banter or simply a joke. It is very common for us as Guyanese to frown on someone who cannot ‘take a joke’. This, according to Parris, has made verbal abuse seemingly excusable and has desensitized adults to its impact particularly against adults and youths. It has also made children easy targets for verbal abuse by adults.
“Verbal abuse is so subtle and often goes unchecked when an adult is the perpetrator and a child is the victim because the adult is often times in a position of power such as a parent or teacher.” Parris explained. “However, children develop the same behavior patterns and become abusive to others resulting in violence in our schools, communities and certainly in families. This is what is called learnt behavior. Adults need to understand that children learn more from modelling their behavior than from punishment they inflict. This can be the basis of a generational cycle of abuse.”
Verbal abuse, according to Ms. Parris, can lay the foundation for other forms of abuse later in life. “Abuse that occurs in domestic violence does not happen overnight. It is a gradual and subtle progression. Abusers test the waters initially before resorting to physical violence. It starts as an insult and gradually moves to physical violence. Verbal abuse is a contributing factor to low self-worth. An individual who was verbally abused as a child may develop a low self-esteem and as an adult, that individual may not be assertive enough to protect themselves from abuse. Many of the prolonged cases of domestic violence can be avoided by eliminating verbal abuse during childhood.”
Children can be directly affected by spouses who are verbally abusive towards each other. Although the insults are hurled at each other, children are deeply affected by the verbal barrage, especially if they are the subject of the argument. Some children may feel guilty because they believe they are the cause of their parent’s conflict or they may feel shame because the family’s dysfunction is exposed to the neighbours. There are occasions when verbally abusive spouses can put the children at risk of abuse and emotional harm. Parris noted the current CRA case of a 16- year- old whose parents were constantly involved in arguments, exchanging scathing remarks. There were several occasions where the child was the subject of the arguments because each spouse criticized each other’s parenting style. To cope with the situation, the teenager ran away from home on multiple occasions. Initially, she visited friends for comfort. Her parents became verbally abusive towards her as a result, calling her a “disgrace” and constantly accusing her of being sexually active at such an early age. This eventually became the case.
“The harsh words of verbally abusive spouses, especially in the presence of their children, can cause them emotional harm as well as make them susceptible to other forms of abuse in or out of the home.” Parris posited. “When there is conflict in the home, children often look outside for comfort, appreciation or love which makes them vulnerable to child predators.”
Parris is confident that as Guyanese, we can put in the effort needed to tackle abuse. We can start by correcting our communication with each other and raising the bar on what we will take from others when they do not speak to us respectfully.
“Clearly we see that much work has to be done with adults to make them more aware and sensitive to the impact of verbal abuse. In order for us to eradicate verbal abuse, we need to have respectful conversations with everyone, especially with children and critically examine our role in taking a stance against supporting verbal abuse.”