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

Updated February 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

What do you think of when you hear the word “abuse”? Many people instantly picture some form of physical abuse. But that is not the only form. Verbal abuse can be difficult to identify and, in some cases, is more damaging than physical violence (call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE for help). Because there is a lack of awareness around verbal abuse, some people live in a relationship with it and don't even know. This article will help you identify verbal abuse, the reasons for it, its manifestations, and how to get help.

Verbal Abuse Crosses The Line - Don't Stand For It

Many psychologists maintain a broad definition of the term. Professor Elaine Johannes identified 15 criteria that could constitute verbal abuse. Put simply, it 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 fear in the survivor—fear of humiliation, failure, physical violence, or abandonment. If you have been a survivor of verbal abuse, it is important to understand that you are not alone and can get help.

Identifying Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse may not leave physical effects, but it certainly can have negative impacts on those who experience it. Unfortunately, you may not even realize when verbal abuse is taking place. Many who experience verbal abuse do not seek help because those actions are not that serious. Many excuse the behavior away. Abusers may make recipients of abuse feel that they’re oversensitive by playing it off as teasing.

As the recipient of verbal abuse, you may also tell yourself that your abuser is tough on you to help you. It's common for survivors 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 verbally abused? In general, this kind of abuse can come out in threats, intimidation, purposeful withholding, and other 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 that naive?"

  • "Are you 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 that things you find important (such as hobbies or ideas) are not

  • Name-calling (whether 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. What’s more, multiple forms of verbal abuse can be used. It is also common for verbal abuse to lead to physical abuse. Just remember that periods of loving behavior between verbal assaults do not negate the abuse. If you or a loved one is experiencing physical abuse, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233).

You can experience verbal abuse in a variety of situations. Abusers can be parents, romantic partners, coworkers, and even children. Many psychologists distinguish between verbal abuse experienced as a child versus verbal abuse experienced as an adult. Many may have heard of abusive parents and romantic partners. But fewer people are aware of 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 exposed to the abusive behavior for extended periods. The issue is also much more prevalent than you might think. It is estimated that over 50 million Americans have experienced bullying of some form at work, including verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse at work often 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 it, and depressed both in and outside the office. Continued workplace abuse can affect your future happiness, job safety, and financial status. It is a serious situation that needs to be addressed. It’s best not to lash out and retaliate against the abuser; instead, calmly and respectfully 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 or human resources (HR) representative.

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 recipients of verbal abuse. They can also be perpetrators, and they quite often direct their verbal assaults at parents, adult relatives, siblings, or teachers.

The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as parental abuse by children, or adolescent-to-parent-violence. Experts have estimated that it affects between 5% to 22% of the population. But researchers who compiled a meta-analysis in 2017 believe that it is highly underreported. 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 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, they are sent the message that they are incapable. They likely won't know how to take control of their own lives, so they may act out in the form of verbal abuse to feel like they are in control. The research surrounding parental abuse is still in its infancy. If you believe you are experiencing verbal abuse from your child, it’s best to seek help before the pattern of behavior leads to other negative consequences.

Manifestations Of Verbal Abuse

It can be very difficult to identify verbal abuse. Verbal abuse can take place in many different situations and manifest itself in many different ways. Different manifestations will be discussed below, but keep in mind: just because a scenario is described here does not mean abuse. Likewise, just because a situation is not described here does not mean you have not experienced abuse. But these points may help you begin thinking about whether or not there is abuse in one or more of your relationships.

  • Being argumentative about ordinary topics: Certain subjects lend 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. 

  • 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 typically makes an earnest effort to improve the situation. In an abusive relationship, though, the abuser is more likely to discount any claims of mistreatment. They might 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 may even 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 to remind you of "your place." A verbally abusive person might 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 criticism: Some abusers will insult you but insist that they are just joking. By doing this, they get your criticisms into your head and make you feel bad, but they defend themselves by saying it was just a joke. In their mind, you have no reason to be mad or upset. This is a way for them to twist the abuse and 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 might 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 that it doesn't sound that difficult or that anyone could do it.

  • Controlling the conversation: Verbal abuse is nearly 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 might try to steer the conversation where they want it. They may also cut you off from discussing the problem by telling you that you complain too much. A verbally abusive person often has to be in control of the conversations at all times; they feel they get their power.

Verbal Abuse Crosses The Line - Don't Stand For It

  • 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 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 targets of abuse. 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 other person 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. Scary rages can accompany verbal abuse. 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 makes their target of abuse 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 often nearly impossible to stop a verbally abusive person, especially when they are in a rage. They may be benefitting from the situation. They don't feel foolish; they feel like they are winning. They have distressed you and gotten a reaction. The abuser may appear to be out of control but can feel quite calm internally. Their abuse is not always a loss of control. It is most often a choice they make about acting—a choice they make to manipulate and scare you. Many survivors of abuse can attest that their abusers are actually in control because they can turn the behavior on and off like a switch.

You Can't Win

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

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. If you cannot leave the abuser's proximity, then your best bet is to play along and let the angry individual "win." It’s best not to argue with logic because they are not logical. Similarly, it’s better not to try to defend yourself because they are not listening. Likewise, it’s not wise to ignore them and hope they will go away because they may only scream louder.

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, you become an actor. Try to give them whatever words they need to hear to end the episode of verbal abuse without making it obvious that you are insincere. Please do not allow them to get inside your head and make you angry. Keep control of yourself. When you can, get away.

Verbal Abuse Can Affect Your Health

Verbal abuse can present itself in many different ways and affect many 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 survivors of abuse 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 issues—both short- and long-term—it is important for you to seek help immediately. At the same time, 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 to help them while they’re still abusing you. 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. Professionals are available to give you advice on how to start healing and prevent future health risks.

Therapy has been shown to effectively help individuals dealing with a verbally abusive person in their life. Verbal abuse expert and author Patricia Evans, writing in her landmark text The Verbally Abusive Relationship, specifically recommends narrative therapy as a means of dealing with this behavior. This form of therapy asks patients to highlight their character strengths and flaws, along with recurring behavior and episodes in their lives. As Evans writes, this process can help abuse survivors realize the issues they have been living with.

When you're a survivor of abuse, it can be intimidating to think about 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 made where and when you need them. BetterHelp is an online counseling service where you can search for help and find a counselor specializing in different areas, such as survivors of abuse. Please 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 gaining the 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 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 for a year!!!"


There is no excuse for verbal abuse and no reason anyone should put up with this abuse. Don't hesitate to reach out to get the help that you need. You are worth more than what you're going through. Take the first step today; BetterHelp is a great place to start.

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