Stop Using Words That Hurt

What is verbal abuse? How can we avoid being verbally abusive with children?

“I probably yell at my children too much” was the contemplative response of a faithful Latter-day Saint mother to my ecclesiastical interview question “Is there anything in your home that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?”

Her response surprised me. This pleasant, soft-spoken sister was an exemplary member of our ward, as was her husband, and her children were well mannered and well liked. They were a stalwart Latter-day Saint family.

We proceeded to discuss her answer further. She spoke of feeling overwhelmed at times by family and parenting responsibilities and of shouting at her children. She was concerned that her yelling might border on “verbal abuse.”

This faithful Latter-day Saint is not alone in her struggle. Many parents yell at their children, belittle them, or criticize them. Even parents who genuinely love their children and are sincerely trying to do their best may engage in this behavior. Parents do not always realize the emotional damage they may be inflicting upon their young ones.

What Is Verbal Abuse?

According to the Church publication Responding to Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders, “abuse may include such acts as threats of abandonment, cursing, demeaning comments, … and other such deprivations.” This publication further explains that abuse “can deeply affect the mind and spirit, destroying faith and causing confusion, doubt, mistrust, guilt, and fear.” 1

Verbal abuse can include blaming (“If you would behave, I wouldn’t have to yell”), threatening (“You’d better stop that or else”), name-calling (“You’re stupid”; “You’re an embarrassment”), belittling (“Anyone could do better than that”; “You’re so clumsy”), rejecting (“Leave me alone!”), shaming (“You’re no good”), or comparing (“Why can’t you be as smart as your brother?”). Or a parent may communicate to the child in ways that indicate the child is hopeless (“You never …”; “You always …”). The home should be a safe, sacred place of refuge for children. But this is not the case when parents are verbally abusive.

Control the Tongue

President David O. McKay (1873–1970) spoke about the necessity of controlling one’s communication:

“He is a weak man who will curse or condemn some loved one because of a little accident. What good does it do him? He [must] develop his spirit and control that anger, control his tongue. A little thing? Trace it, and you will find that not yielding and not controlling it bring many an unhappy hour in your home.” 2

Stories regarding the “many unhappy hours” in homes are truly tragic.

“If I could do it all over again,” wrote a mother from Glendale, Utah, “I would commit to never raising my voice. Ironically, as a young mother, I remember hearing an older woman say that she never raised her voice to her children. I thought to myself, How impractical!

“Yelling goes way back in my family tree. Everyone yells, I thought. It’s just part of life. I had often given myself over to my emotions and expressed my anger at the top of my voice at my children. Then I became frustrated by their lack of cooperation and yelled my orders even louder at them. I have even screamed to them that I could not tolerate their yelling and quarreling any longer, not realizing that they had learned to yell from me.

“Raising my voice invited the spirit of contention into our home. Once it was there, the children learned to call each other names and say cruel things to each other. I would respond with more anger and accusations, and the negative feelings would continue to escalate.

“After yelling at my kids for the better part of 20 years, I have learned what 3 Nephi 11:29 means: ‘He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil.’ Allowing the spirit of contention to enter our home allowed darkness and depression to enter. It fostered meanness and self-centeredness, and nearly destroyed unity, love, and family relationships.” 3

Using demeaning, threatening words and shouting can leave indelible impressions on a child’s mind. Hurtful words can be used like a weapon to inflict injuries that are difficult to overcome. A child who is continually criticized can begin to believe the negative messages. Children who suffer repeated emotional or verbal abuse may experience depression, develop feelings of low self-worth, and have difficulty in their interpersonal relationships. All of these effects may extend into adulthood.

Preventing Verbal Abuse

Some years ago, in an effort to encourage positive communication, my family decided to discuss during family home evening ways we could improve our verbal communication with each other. We agreed to pay attention to our language and to avoid name calling and using negative labels, which we began to call “garbage-can words.” Some of those labels and words were stupid, ugly, dummy, lazy, spoiled, crybaby, and others. We all knew which labels and words were negative and hurtful. And, interestingly enough, new ones seemed to creep into our communication and had to also be thrown into the “garbage can.”

As I have counseled families throughout the years, I have used a one-page handout for parents on how to stop using words that hurt and start using words that help. Some of the words and phrases that help are: “Good job!” “You did that by yourself? I’ve never seen that done any better.” “Let’s try again.” “I’m sorry.” “Can I help?” “You always seem to figure out a way.” “You’re pretty smart!” “I didn’t know you could do that.” “Nice try.” “Great effort!” “Good work.” “Keep trying; you’ll get it.”

Whether or not you consider yourself to be a verbally abusive parent, listen carefully to the language you use with your children. Be receptive to feedback from others about your parent-child interactions. Be aware of any negative, hurtful verbal responses and reactions, including negative words, tone of voice, and overall approach to communicating with your children. When you feel tempted to engage in abusive verbal behavior, stop what you are doing and remove yourself temporarily from the situation. See the sidebar “Instead of Yelling” for more suggestions on avoiding abusive verbal behavior.

If you are finding it difficult to change your actions, seek counsel from your bishop. If further help is needed, he can refer you to a qualified therapist.

President Gordon B. Hinckley has prescribed love and respect as the most effective tool in curing abuse and other family problems:

“The prescription is simple and wonderfully effective. It is love. It is plain, simple, everyday love and respect. It is a tender plant that needs nurturing. But it is worth all of the effort we can put into it.” 4

On another occasion he said: “My plea—and I wish I were more eloquent in voicing it—is a plea to save the children. Too many of them walk with pain and fear, in loneliness and despair. Children need sunlight. They need happiness. They need love and nurture. They need kindness and refreshment and affection.” 5

Let us treat our children with “kindness and refreshment and affection,” knowing as we do so that the Lord will bless our efforts. Our relationships with our children will then be closer, and they will be farther along the road to becoming happy, well-adjusted adults.

Instead of Yelling

  1. 1.

    Pause and reconsider what you’re going to say. Then think of a better response—or no response at all for the time being.

  2. 2.

    Remember the last time you felt like yelling, and concentrate on what you did that helped you then.

  3. 3.

    When tempted to yell or use demeaning or threatening words, count to 20 or more before you yell.

  4. 4.

    Put your child, and even yourself, in a time-out chair. Just sit there and cool off for a few minutes.

  5. 5.

    Sing or hum a favorite hymn.

  6. 6.

    Call a friend to talk or to even temporarily relieve you of childcare, if necessary.

  7. 7.

    Go outside for a breath of fresh air. Look at the sky to get the bigger picture.

  8. 8.

    Write a brief list of your immediate feelings of frustration. Then write feelings you think you may still have in 10 minutes or so.

Abuse Is Not Compatible with the Spirit

President George Albert Smith

“We should not lose our tempers and abuse one another. I want to say that nobody ever abused anybody else when he had the spirit of the Lord. It is always when we have some other spirit.” President George Albert Smith (1870–1951), in Conference Report, Oct. 1950, 8.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Steve Kropp

J. Thomas Cearley is a member of the Slidell Ward, Slidell Louisiana Stake.

Show References


  1.   1.

    Responding to Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders (1995), 2, 1.

  2.   2.

    Gospel Ideals (1953), 490.

  3.   3.

    “What I Would Do Differently as a Parent,” Ensign, July 1996, 7.

  4.   4.

    “Look to the Future,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 69.

  5.   5.

    “Save the Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 54.