Sticks and stones: Verbal abuse of children can lead to PTSD


Psychiatrists at Harvard University have challenged the old playground rhyme.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” might have served some purpose at some time in the face of a tirade of name-calling, but actually a constant barrage of verbal attacks-yelling, shouting, swearing, insults, demeaning, ridiculing, and casting unfair blame-can in fact be as traumatic for a child as experiencing or witnessing some types of physical or sexual abuse.

Constant and severe verbal abuse can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Harvard news site reports:



Many studies tie physical and sexual abuse to lasting effects on the brain and behavior, but emotional mistreatment has not received the same focus. “Exposure to verbal aggression has received little attention as a specific form of abuse,” notes Martin Teicher, associate professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated psychiatric facility. “This despite the fact that one national study found that 63 percent of American parents reported one or more instances of verbal aggression, such as swearing at and insulting their child.”

Other researchers have associated childhood verbal abuse with a significantly higher risk of developing unstable, angry personalities, narcissistic behavior, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and paranoia. “Verbal abuse may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, because it’s often more continuous,” says Teicher. “And in combination with physical abuse and neglect [it] may produce the most dire outcome. However, child protective service agencies, doctors, and lawyers are most concerned about the impact and prevention of physical or sexual abuse.”

The article raises some interesting points, and concludes that the occasional harsh or angry word won’t traumatise a child for life, but frequent verbal bashing “could be as bad as sticks and stones that break their bones.”
Study or no study, I know many people who have rightfully dismissed this unhelpful rhyme.

I personally don’t know where it came from, or why it was used-frequently, from memory-in the playground.

Verbal abuse leaves no visible bruises, cuts, or scars, but the emotional trauma it can cause, both at the time, and years afterwards, can be immense.