What Is Verbal Abuse?

Tips for verbal abuse

Verywell / Laura Porter

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Verbal abuse is a type of emotional abuse. It is when someone uses their words to assault, dominate, ridicule, manipulate, and/or degrade another person and negatively impact that person's psychological health. Verbal abuse is a means of controlling and maintaining power over another person.

Most people assume that if they were being verbally abused they would know about it. After all, verbal abuse often involves yelling, put-downs, name-calling, and belittling behaviors. But there is more to verbal abuse than people realize. Some people are verbally abused on a regular basis without even recognizing that it’s happening.

Verbal abuse can occur in any type of relationship: romantic relationships, parent-child relationships, family relationships, and co-worker relationships.

Verbal abuse sometimes precedes physical abuse; however, this is not always the case. Verbal abuse can exist without physical abuse. The effects of verbal abuse can be just as damaging as those of physical abuse.

This article covers what verbal abuse is, the signs and impact of verbal abuse, as well as how to seek help if you are coping with the effects of verbal abuse.


Click Play to Learn More About Verbal Abuse

This video has been medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS.

Signs of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse involves using words to name call, bully, demean, frighten, intimidate, or control another person. This can include overt verbal abuse such as yelling, screaming, or swearing. Such behaviors are attempts to gain power, and the goal is to control and intimidate you into submission. As a result, it is abusive and should not be tolerated or excused. 

However, verbal abuse can also be much more subtle. Victims of verbal abuse often question whether or not what they are experiencing is truly abusive. They also wonder whether or not it is a big deal.

Some signs that you are experiencing verbal abuse include:

  • You are afraid of your abuser
  • You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around the other person
  • You feel like you cannot share things about yourself with them for fear that they will mock or ridicule you
  • You're afraid to go out in public with them because of what they will say about you in front of other people
  • You feel threatened
  • You feel as if you are constantly being put down about how you look, think, act, dress, or talk
  • You feel inferior or ashamed about who you are
  • They yell at you but then suggest that you are overly sensitive or that you don't have a sense of humor
  • They overreact to small problems and then blame you for the resulting argument
  • They suggest that they are the victim and try to make you feel guilty about something they accuse you of doing
  • They hide this verbal abuse when you are around other people but act completely different when you are alone

Verbal abuse can also be used to harass people by humiliating, insulting, criticizing, or demeaning them using words. This can often be used as a way to intimidate or bully people in a variety of settings, including in relationships and the workplace.

People engage in verbal abuse for a variety of reasons. Family history, past experiences, personality, and mental illness are a few factors that can play a role.

The goal of the abuser is to control you by making you feel bad about who you are.

Types of Verbal Abuse

When someone is being verbally abused, the person attacking them may use overt forms of abuse like engaging in name-calling and making threats, but also more insidious methods like gaslighting or constantly correcting, interrupting, putting down, and demeaning them.

Even prolonged silent treatment is a form of verbal abuse. When this happens, the person is attempting to control and punish the victim by refusing to talk to them.

For some people, especially those who experience verbal abuse in the home or experienced it as a child, it can often be overlooked because verbal assaults feel like a normal way to communicate. But they are anything but normal and can have lasting consequences.

Verbal abuse can take many different forms, including:

  • Blaming: This type involves making the victim believe they are responsible for the abusive behavior or that they bring the verbal abuse upon themselves.
  • Condescension: While often disguised as humor, sarcastic comments that are intended to belittle and demean the other person can be a form of verbal abuse.
  • Criticism: This involves harsh and persistent remarks that are meant to make the person feel bad about themselves and are not constructive but deliberate and hurtful. Criticism can be painful in public or private, particularly if the person is simply being mean and has no intention of being constructive. 
  • Gaslighting: This is a type of insidious, and sometimes covert, emotional abuse where the abuser makes the target question their judgments and reality.
  • Humiliation: When you are insulted in public by a peer, a friend, a family member, or a dating partner, this can be particularly painful.
  • Judging: This type of verbal abuse involves looking down on the victim, not accepting them for who they are, or holding them to unrealistic expectations.
  • Manipulation: Using words to manipulate and control the other person is also a type of verbal abuse. This can include making statements like, "If you really loved me, you wouldn't talk to other people about our relationship," or using guilt trips to get you to do certain things
  • Name-calling: Abusive, derogatory language, or insults that chip away at the target’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and self-concept. Anytime someone engages in name-calling, it is a form of verbal abuse. Even if the names are said in a neutral voice, this is not an acceptable treatment of another person.
  • Ridicule: Typically, verbally abusive people will make you the butt of their jokes. This can be done in private or in person. But if you don't find it funny, then it is not harmless fun. What's more, verbally abusive people usually select jokes that attack an area where you feel vulnerable or weak.
  • Threats: This involves statements meant to frighten, control, and manipulate the victim into compliance. No threat should ever be taken lightly. When people make threats, they are trying to control and manipulate you. Remember, there is no better way to control someone than to make them fearful in some way.
  • Withholding: This type of verbal abuse involves a refusal to give affection or attention, including talking to you, looking at you, or even being in the same room with you. Examples of withholding or ignoring include stonewalling or giving someone the silent treatment.

While not an exhaustive list, these are several examples of the common types of verbal abuse that can occur.

Impact of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse can impact every element of life, from academic performance to relationships to success at work. Just like any other form of abuse or bullying, verbal abuse has both short- and long-term consequences, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Changes in mood
  • Chronic stress
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Substance use

When verbal abuse is particularly severe, it can impact whether or not people can see themselves as being successful in any area of life. Those who experience verbal abuse as children may experience feelings of worthlessness, difficulty trusting others, and problems regulating their emotions as adults.

A number of studies have shown that children who are verbally abused, either at home or by their peers at school, are at a greater risk for depression and anxiety as adults.

It is not uncommon for a person who is verbally abused to feel inadequate, stupid, and worthless. In some cases. they are explicitly told they are these things by the person abusing them.

Verbal abuse can be particularly confusing because the partner may not be abusive all of the time and their behavior likely emerged slowly over time. In this way, verbal abuse can be insidious and subtle.

As a result, when the abuser is loving and gentle, the victim can forget about the negative behavior. Ultimately, the victim ends up ignoring the pattern of verbal abuse or makes excuses for the behavior, saying that the abuser is just stressed or going through a tough time right now.

What to Do About Verbal Abuse

The first step in dealing with verbal abuse is to recognize the abuse. If you were able to identify any type of verbal abuse in your relationship, it's important to acknowledge that first and foremost.

By being honest about what you are experiencing, you can begin to take steps to regain control. While you need to consider your individual situation and circumstances, these tips can help if you find yourself in a verbally abusive relationship.

Set Boundaries

Firmly tell the verbally abusive person that they may no longer criticize, judge or shame you, name-call, threaten you, and so on. Then, tell them what will happen if they continue this abusive behavior.

For instance, tell them that if they scream or swear at you, the conversation will be over and you will leave the room. The key is to follow through; don't set boundaries you have no intention of keeping.

Limit Exposure

If possible, take time away from the verbally abusive person and spend time with people who love and support you. Limiting exposure with the person can give you space to reevaluate your relationship. Surrounding yourself with a network of friends and family will help you feel less lonely and isolated and remind you of what a healthy relationship should look like.

End the Relationship

If there are no signs that the verbal abuse will end, or that the person has any intention of working on their behavior, you will likely need to take steps to end the relationship.

Before doing so, share your thoughts and ideas with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. You may also want to come up with a safety plan in case the abuse escalates when you break things off.

Seek Help

Healing from a verbally abusive relationship may not be something you can do on your own. Reach out to trusted loved ones for support, and consider talking to a therapist who can help you process your emotions and develop healthy coping skills for dealing with the short- and long-term consequences of verbal abuse.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Although the effects of verbal abuse can be significant, there is still hope. Once a person recognizes verbal abuse in their lives, they can start making informed decisions about which friendships and dating relationships are healthy and which are toxic, fake, or abusive. They also can learn to stand up to verbal bullying.

Remember, verbal abuse doesn't have to leave a lasting impact. With intervention, victims can overcome and cope with the bullying they have experienced. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How should you respond to verbal abuse?

    Try to call out the abuse when it happens by requesting the person stop the behavior. If they don't listen, safely remove yourself from the situation. Consider limiting your interactions with this person and/or ending the relationship.

  • What is verbal abuse in a relationship?

    Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse where someone uses their words to invoke fear in another person and gain control over them. Types of verbal abuse include name-calling, criticizing, gaslighting, and threatening.

  • How do you prove verbal abuse in court?

    Keep a record of verbal abuse incidents, writing down the type of abuse, when and where it occurred, and the impact of the abuse, such as mental distress. It may be helpful to talk to any witnesses of the abuse and ask if they are willing to testify on your behalf, if necessary.

  • How do you deal with verbal abuse in the workplace?

    Talk to the abuser and request they stop their behavior. Document incidents of abuse and inform the human resources department. Bullying isn't covered by federal law, but workplace discrimination and harassment are. Seek legal advice if your workplace isn't supportive of your claims.

  • How do you recover from verbal abuse?

    The first step is to put an end to the verbal abuse you're experiencing. Seek the help of a qualified mental healthcare professional, and confide in trusted family and friends. With support, you can recover from verbal abuse.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.