Would You Recognize Verbal Abuse? Here’s What You Need to Know

By: Stephanie Kirby

Updated May 01, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

What do you think of when you hear the word "abuse?" If you're like most people, you instantly think of physical abuse. However, that isn't the only type of abuse, and the other types, such as verbal abuse, can be just as damaging. Because there is a lack of awareness around verbal abuse, some people are living in a relationship with it and don't even know it. This article will help you identify verbal abuse, the reasons for it, its manifestations, and how to get help.

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Put simply, verbal abuse is a manipulation tactic used by one person to control another through non-physical means. This can be done by controlling their behaviors, feelings, or decisions. Many times, the controlling or coercive behaviors are disguised as love or concern. Other times the abuse is more overt. Either way, the abuse can instill a fear in the victim- fear of humiliation, fear of failure, or fear of physical violence or abandonment. It is important to understand, if you are a victim, that you are not alone, and you can get help.

Identifying Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse may not leave physical effects, but it most definitely has negative impacts on its victims. Unfortunately, you may not even realize when verbal abuse is taking place. If you are experiencing verbal abuse you may find yourself wondering if it's abuse; however, you most likely excuse the behavior away. The abuser may tell you that you're being oversensitive or play it off as teasing. You may also tell yourself that your abuser is just being tough on you in order to help you. It's common for victims of verbal abuse to feel like they're going crazy. But, when you learn to identify verbal abuse for what it is, you can take the steps you need to get help.

How do you know if you are being verbally abused? In general, this kind of abuse can come out in threats, intimidation, and various forms of manipulation. If the person you suspect of abuse uses the following words towards you, it could be a sign of verbal abuse.

  • "You're too sensitive."
  • "Can't you take a joke?"
  • "Your idea is idiotic."
  • "Are you really that naive?"
  • "Are you really that dumb?"
  • "You're behaving like a child."
  • "Anyone else would agree with me."
  • "You have a terrible sense of humor."
  • "This wouldn't have happened if you…"
  • "I never said that," when you know they did.
  • "That never happened."
  • "That proves that you're crazy."
  • Denying any blame.
  • Telling you the things that you find important are not.
  • Name-calling, profane or otherwise.

Anyone can lose their temper or say something they didn't mean. But when this behavior is abusive, it happens in a fairly regular pattern, not just once. Just remember that periods of loving behavior between verbal assaults does not negate the abuse.

You can be the victim of verbal abuse in a variety of situations. Abusers can be seen in parents, romantic partner, coworkers, and even in children. While many people already look at abusive parents and romantic partner, here will focus on verbal abuse in work and child relationships.

Abuse in the Workplace

Verbal abuse does not only take place between people who are in close relationships with each other. It is possible to experience verbal abuse at work from a boss or co-worker. This kind of verbal abuse can be just as damaging as abuse in intimate or family relationships, because you are at work and exposed to the abusive behavior for extended periods of time.

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Verbal abuse at work presents in the same ways as other abusive relationships. It can manifest as threats, angry yelling, intimidation, mocking, and other manipulative behaviors, such as spreading false rumors and gossip. The effects can cause you to be miserable at work, obsessed with thoughts about work, and depressed both in and outside the office. Continued workplace abuse can affect your future happiness, job security, and financial status. It is a serious situation that needs to be addressed. Do not lash out and retaliate against the abuser; instead, call them out on their behavior and let them know it is a form of harassment. You can also bring the issue to the attention of a supervisor.

Abuse From Your Child

Children are often the targets of bullying and verbal abuse. They are at a point in their lives when they have very little power, and because abuse is at its core an issue of power and control, that, unfortunately, makes children easy targets. But children are not always the victims of verbal abuse. They can also be perpetrators, and quite often their verbal assaults are directed at parents, adult relatives, siblings, or teachers.

Getting away from the abusive person or reducing interactions is often a solution for many relationships, but this doesn't work in a relationship between a caregiver and a child. It's the adult's job to continue caring for the child and help them to find a better way to handle their frustrations before the behaviors become a lifelong pattern.

If you give in to a child's abusive language, you are essentially giving them confirmation that they have power over you and can control you. Dealing with this behavior is best done through prevention. Children need to be taught problem-solving skills from an early age. When parents take care of everything for children beyond the age, they need assistance, the child is being sent the message that they are weak and incapable. They also don't know how to take control of their own lives. All children go through periods of growth where they may feel frustrated by their lack of control or inability to understand changes. And it can be normal for them to lash out occasionally. But a well-adapted child has been taught the skills to solve problems and handle uncomfortable feelings without threatening

Manifestations of Verbal Abuse

Are you still not sure if you would recognize verbal abuse? This abuse can happen in many different situations and manifest itself in many different ways. Below different manifestations will be discussed, but keep in mind that just because a scenario is described here does not mean it is abuse or just because a situation is not described here doesn't mean you are not a victim of abuse. Trust your instincts about how you and others should be treated.

  • Being Argumentative About Ordinary Topics. Certain subjects lead themselves to debate- like politics and philosophy. But verbally abusive people may counter opinions you have on ordinary topics, like a movie you watched together, and try to convince you that your opinions are wrong. They dismiss your thoughts and feelings and make vehement efforts to force you into sharing their thoughts and feelings.
  • Denying Rather Than Discussing Issues with How They Treat You. In a good relationship, intimate or otherwise, each person can talk about how they feel and expect the other person to listen sincerely and try to help them solve problems. If the problems are with the relationship, each person makes an earnest effort to improve the situation. In an abusive relationship, the abuser will discount any claims of mistreatment. They deny that they have done anything wrong and instead insist that you are the one with a problem, or that your claims have no grounds in reality. They try to make you feel like it is all in your head.
  • Criticism That Isn't Helpful. There is a big difference between someone making you aware of aspects in your life where you can improve and someone putting you down just to remind you of "your place." A verbally abusive person will make constant critical statements. These criticisms often come in the form of "you" statements, like "You never do the dishes right" or "You always eat too much." They are negative judgments on you that do nothing to help you or acknowledge your positive efforts.
  • Jokes that are actually criticism. Some abusers will insult you but insist that they are just joking. By doing this, they get their criticisms of you into your head and make you feel bad, but they defend themselves by saying it was just a joke. Therefore- to them-, you have no reason to be mad or upset. This is a way for them to twist the abuse and try to make you feel like you have the problem. If what they are saying is upsetting to you and you don't find it funny, then an apology is in order, not an excuse stating that it was just a joke.
  • Trivializing Your Efforts. Trivializing happens when the abuser acts like something you worked hard on isn't a big deal. They minimize your achievements or say that they could have done a better job. This kind of verbal abuse can go hand-in-hand with criticism. For instance, you may tell them that you successfully ran a mile today, and they may ignore your statement and instead comment on your weight or say they could have run the mile faster. Or you may talk about a difficult task you finished at work, and they respond by saying, it doesn't sound that difficult or that anyone could do it.
  • Controlling the Conversation. Verbal abuse is always about control. An abuser may try to stop you from talking about certain topics or tell you it's not your turn to talk. They try to steer the conversation where they want it. They will also cut you off from discussing the problem by telling you that you complain too much. A verbally abusive person has to be in control of the conversations at all times; it is where they feel they get their power.

If You Believe You're in An Abusive Relationship, Get The Support You Need
Emotional Abuse Is Real - Find A Licensed Counselor to Help You

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  • Blaming Their Problems on You. Verbal abusers often try to find a scapegoat for issues that are their own. If they don't get the job they want, they may find a way to blame it on you. If the two of you are having money problems, they may say it's your fault for the career you selected or the degree you chose- even if they are not doing well in their own career and could make improvements. A lack of support and willingness to solve problems together is not a healthy relationship.
  • Making Threats. Threats come in a variety of forms. Often abusers will use known fears against their victims. Because they make themselves seem indispensable to the other person or make the other individual feel completely dependent upon them, they may threaten to leave, abandon, fire, or divorce the victim in order to cause panic and manipulate the other person into behaving how they want.

The Relationship Between Anger, Control, and Verbal Abuse

Often, abusers are angry individuals. Verbal abuse can be accompanied by scary rages. Other times, the threats and insults are quiet and subtle. But anger may still be behind them. What you need to know is that the anger is not necessarily directed at you. You did not do anything to provoke their outbursts. They are angry about themselves and their own lives, whether the anger is justified or not.

The method of self-soothing these angry people use is to make their victims feel doubt and fear. It gives them power and control over someone, and these feelings make the abuser feel good. That is why it is nearly impossible to stop a verbally abusive person, especially when they are in a rage. They are benefitting from the situation. They don't feel foolish; they feel like they are winning because they have distressed you and gotten a reaction. The abuser may appear to be out of control but can actually feel quite calm internally. Their abuse is not a loss of control. It is a choice they make about how to act- a choice they make in order to manipulate and scare you. Many victims of abuse can attest to the fact that their abusers are actually in control because they are able to turn the behavior on and off like a switch.

You Can't Win

What you must understand is that no choice you make about how to react will ever be the right one. What the abuser wants is to continue the argument. They want to escalate it. They want you to lose your control so that they have power over you. If you are silent, they will start yelling questions and insist that you speak and answer them. If you speak and answer, they will talk over you and tell you what your answer is. They will not listen to anything you say, except to pick up a couple of words that give them something to twist and accuse you of.

How To Stop An Abuser

The only way to stop an abusive rage is to get away from the situation. That being said, leaving an argument with a verbally abusive person is not always easy, depending upon the situation and what your relationship is with the person. If you cannot leave the abuser's proximity, then your best bet is to play along and let the angry individual "win." Do not argue logic because they are not being logical. Do not try to defend yourself because they are not listening. Do not ignore them and hope they will go away because they will only scream louder and possibly resort to physical violence or other emotional abuse and torment

When verbal abuse reaches this point, all that matters is that you protect your own mental and physical health. It does not matter if you are lying to the abuser. When you are physically stuck with them, cannot leave the situation, and the truth only plays into their desire to rage harder, you become an actor. Try to give them whatever words they need to hear in order to end the episode of verbal abuse, without making it obvious that you are insincere. Do not allow them to get inside your head and make you angry. Keep control of yourself rather than giving it to them. When you are able to, get away.

Verbal Abuse Can Affect Your Health

Verbal abuse can present itself in many different ways and different relationships. No matter what type of verbal abuse you are experiencing, the effects on your health are similar. If you're not sure whether you should address your abuse and seek help, then know that all of the following issues are health problems victims can experience.

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Inflammatory diseases, including heart disease
  • Social difficulties
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Chronic pain
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Stammering
  • Indigestion, diarrhea, or other gastrointestinal problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Anger issues

Due to the nature of these problems- both long and short term-, it is important for you to seek help immediately. While there are several ways to get help, seeking assistance and support from an outside source may be your best option.

Seeking Help

Your physical and mental well-being needs to come first. You may still care about your abuser, but you cannot put their needs first or try to get them help them while you're still their victim. In reading this article, you've taken the first step- learning to recognize the pattern of abuse. Now, you can talk to a therapist about your situation; you can get advice on how to start healing and prevent future health risks.

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However, when you're the victim of abuse it can be intimidating to think about going to an appointment with a therapist. You may not want the abuser to know that you're getting help. This is where online counseling can help. This type of counseling is convenient, and appointments can be done where and when you need. BetterHelp is an online counseling service where you can search for help and find a counselor who specializes in different areas, for example victims of abuse. Read below for a few reviews of our BetterHelp online counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Dr. Walsh has been very supportive in helping me with abuse issues and depression. She has taken lots of time with me, and I appreciate how far I've come with her guidance."

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gaining skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is, it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"


If you could relate with the things that you read in this article, it's time to get help. There is no excuse for verbal abuse, and no reason anyone should put up with this abuse. Don't hesitate in reaching out to get the help that you need. You are worth more than what you're going through. Take the first step today.

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