One Little Statement, Lasting Pain
One of the primary reasons verbal and emotional abuse is so destructive is because it tends to be interwoven into the environment, and therefore occurs fairly regularly and over a substantial period of time. Yet that doesn't mean verbal abuse must happen regularly in order to do a child significant harm. In fact, (sadly) it's quite possible to inflict scars that persist through a single errant statement--particularly when the experience passes without reconciliation or comforting; when it aggravates a pre-existing fear the child may have; or when it attacks something very close and personal in nature.
Not any old insult can do the trick. We don't intend to insinuate that children are such delicate flowers that a little name-calling is too much to recover from. But there are certain types of verbal/emotional attacks that are so hurtful and severe that they are quite capable of producing severe, lasting injury with a single delivery, especially if the child is particularly sensitive to begin with. Here are some examples:
1. Telling a child that "they were a mistake," or that it was a mistake to have them
Such an accusation attacks a child at their most intimate and profound level: their identity as someone who is loved and wanted. And once you open this Pandora’s box with such a statement, it's hard to put the lid back on. Even if you retract it later, it often remains a nagging doubt in the child's mind, and they may suspect that your true, underlying feelings were revealed on that day in such a statement, and that your rebuttal of it now is merely a half-hearted attempt to bury the hatchet or be a good parent. If the messages of the statement or doubts remain, it can cause lasting injury, because a child who grows up feeling unwanted tends to develop numerous psychological problems because of it.
2. Threatening to abandon them or give them up
Particularly with younger children, threatening to abandon them plays into their most profound fears, and can leave a long-lasting scar. Psychologists Rusk & Rusk write about the story of a parent who, in a moment of anger and frustration, threatened to send her child to an orphanage. (Rusk & Rusk, 1988, p. 225) This one hollow threat caused such an injury that it became a source of numerous problems throughout childhood, and even troubled her decades later as an adult. Threats such as "if you don't straighten up, I'll send you to an institution" attack attachment and can be very hurtful if the child assumes you are even somewhat serious.