In his thesis Incubated in Terror, Perry (1997, p. 3) accurately observes that the "most destructive violence does not break bones, it breaks minds" and that "emotional violence does not result in the death of the body, it results in the death of the soul." Another set of psychologists, amidst their work on teen suicide, write that "While physical and sexual abuse can be quantified and categorized according to bruises, fractures, burns, rape ... emotional and verbal abuse - a the pattern of continually undermining and belittling a child through criticism and verbal attacks - is equally damaging, and much more insidious. Verbal abuse is more common than either physical or sexual abuse, and yet it is seldom adequately identified or treated." (Slaby & Garfinkel, 1996, p. 88)
Additional evidence about the destructiveness of verbal/emotional abuse in relation to other types of abuse can be obtained through the testimony of those who have endured both. Steve Simpson, a youth advocate working with teen runaways, who also came from an abusive home as a child, notes that "as someone whose had both (physical and verbal abuse) ...1 can tell you that verbal is even worse than the physical, because it trashes your self-esteem." (CNN News, 10-24-09)
His sentiments are hardly unique. Those who know maltreatment issues know that far more damage can be done with a single cutting remark than with anything physical. Though testimonials from children are virtually non-existent because of obvious methodological barriers in collecting them, analysis of verbally abused adults reaffirms this principle. In her 1993 book, 'Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak out,' Patricia Evans documents a mountain of evidence about how destructive simple words can be. One survivor of verbal abuse remarks that, "A 'lifetime' later and years after (her abusers) death I talked to a doctor. When I told the doctor that mine is not a pretty story, he asked, 'Did he beat you up?' I said, 'No, only with words' and he said, "I have seen people shredded to pieces by verbal abuse; it is worse than by beating.'" (Evans, 1993, p. 72) Another describes verbal abuse as "bloodless murder." 'Hbid, p. 90) Another tells of her experience in a domestic violence support group: "To learn more about verbal abuse and control issues, I attended a support group for abused women for over two years. Week after week, women would walk in with broken bones, bruises, cuts. They'd tell about being taken to the hospital emergency room, some more than once. With woman after woman, I'd ask: "Which was worse in your relationship, the physical abuse or the verbal abuse?' And without exception the answer was the verbal abuse, 'Truly!' " (ibid, p. 122) Patricia Evans' own research of verbal abuse supports these testimonials, reporting that "many ... say that the mental anguish of verbal abuse is much worse than being hit." (ibid, p. 145) Yes, someone can cause more injury to a child and deliver more hurt with a stinging tongue than could be done by assaulting them.
Of course, this should not be anything new ... we've been warned that "the tongue is mightier than the sword" for thousands of years, and we all know from personal experience just how hurtful words can be. Hurtful words can cause negative emotions, stress, physiological changes in the body, poor self-esteem, social problems, future detriments in adulthood, and often leads to suicide. In other words, it can cause all the damage of any other type of serious abuse, perhaps even more, all without physically laying a hand on them.