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How to Manage Verbal Abuse

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Unkind words hurt and can do a lot of emotional damage. The old adage, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." is simply NOT true. Most of us know that words can and do hurt. This article will teach you how to manage verbal abuse, protect your self-esteem, and even feel some compassion for the abuser.

Knowing that words hurt is one thing; finding a way to manage the verbal abuse to reduce the hurt to a minimum level is quite another. After many years of raising troubled foster children who were both subjected to and perpetrators of verbal abuse, I developed a plan to help me manage the abuse. A plan must be utilized in order to limit emotional injury or the caregiver simply burns out and the child moves on to yet another placement. The negative effects of multiple placements on children is well documented in the literature. Another very important benefit of successfully managing verbal abuse is preventing the altercation from escalating into a physical battle. Most physical abuse/violence begins with verbal battling. Stopping it at that point can save immeasurable hurt.

I have been called some of the filthiest names you can imagine. Every once in a while I even get called a new name that I never heard before. Some of the worst verbal abuse directed toward me came from a young man with moderate mental retardation. He could not form more than about a three-word sentence, but he could go on and on with verbal abuse. He would say the same foul word over and over again, and just add a different word after it. Abusive language is not limited by intelligence, but the smarter the child, the more creative the abuse often becomes. No matter what kind of verbal abuse is directed toward me, I now handle all of it the same way.

There are five steps in my verbal abuse management plan.
They are as follows:

1. Keep the emotion out.
2. Set limits.
3. Impose consequences.
4. Model good behavior.
5. Stick to your plan.

The first step is the hardest one. Keeping calm and dealing rationally with another person's unacceptable language is very difficult. Abusive language can be very powerful, very offensive, and can cause an almost knee-jerk, negative reaction on the part of the receiver. These impulsive reactions usually have poor to disastrous consequences.

The way that I keep my emotions under control is by forcing myself to concentrate on something else rather than allowing myself to react to the hurtful words. I have practiced my method for many years and it is now automatic for me. As soon as I get the first abusive word, I tell myself, "Get a paper and pencil." I command myself to get it NOW! The most important thing in the world for me at that moment is getting a pencil and paper and recording what was said. I cannot process how hurtful the words are while doing something constructive. I then write the name of the abuser, date, time, and what was said. By following this step to the letter, I concentrate so hard on doing a good job of documentation that I cannot react to the hurt and lose control of my emotions.

Believe me, I am made out of the same stuff as everyone else and words do hurt, sometimes terribly. I know that I will have to deal with the hurt at some point, but during the crisis is not the time. There will be plenty of time later to process the words and make appropriate decisions about what to do about the abuse. If you are able to control your emotions, the rest of these steps will probably be relatively easy to follow.

Here are some other tips to help control your emotions by giving yourself something else to do. Force yourself to carefully record the facts. Record just the facts. Ask for clarification if you did not hear the words clearly. Ask the abuser how to spell a word that you never heard of before or if you are not familiar with the spelling. Ask how many times an abusive words was used if the abuser is speaking very rapidly and you lost track of the number of times a word was said. I will never forget the time that I calmly looked at an abuser and said, "Wait a minute. You're going too fast. How many times did you call me an MFer." The abuser, an adolescent, was shocked. When he saw that his words were having no negative effect on me and that I was carefully recording all of the facts to report to the proper authorities, he totally lost his momentum in the battle. It is hard for an abuser to keep going when he/she is not getting the desired effect, usually hurt and shock. Sometimes an abuser stops immediately when you say, "I'm sorry. I don't know how to spell that word. Would you spell it for me please." Again his/her train of thought is interrupted, and he/she can see that the intended effect is just not happening. Abuse does not always stop this easily, but when it does, count your blessings. Remember, deal with the facts--just the facts--deal with your feelings later.

The next step is to set limits. This step can be accomplished as soon as the abuser settles down a bit and is willing to listen. Explain the consequences of his/her behavior. A consequence at our house is a 10-minute timeout sitting at the picnic table following any verbal abuse. We want to teach acceptable behaviors, so it is better for consequences to be mild and frequent rather than severe and infrequent providing that that abuser is responding positively to the interventions.

It is also important to clarify your tolerance limit and give plenty of reminders as to what it is. Some people can handle a great deal of verbal abuse without taking it personally and others cannot. You need to know your limit and clearly convey it to the abuser. No one can read your mind. Many abusers have learned to use verbal abuse in their normal conversations. They do not know the tolerance limits of others. It is your responsibility to clearly set the limit.

There are many ways to set limits. You might say, "We agreed that you would have a 10-minute timeout each time that you use bad language, so please go to your timeout spot now." Or you might say, "If you talk to me that way again, I will ask that you be removed from my home." Or perhaps, "It is illegal for you to use that kind of language in my presence, and I will press charges against you if you do it again." It is important for you to set limits in advance and follow through with the consequences. In order to be effective, you must know the laws in your state in addition to knowing your own limits.

There are laws forbidding abuse. Check your state's laws to determine the difference between annoying behavior and illegal behavior. In PA where I live, the Child Protective Services Law protects children from all forms of abuse. The Pennsylvania Crimes Code is quite clear regarding when unacceptable language is illegal. Abusive language can justify charges for such crimes as harassment, and disorderly conduct. Your state's crimes code determines how your state handles such matters.

The third step is to impose consequences. This step goes hand in hand with limit setting. Once the limit is set, the abuser has a choice about whether to continue with abusive behavior. If he/she continues, be sure to follow through with the consequences. It is so important to follow through with consequences after setting limits. If you say to a child, "If you do that again, I will not take you roller skating on Friday evening, and the child does it again, make sure he/she does not go roller skating on Friday. If you back down, your credibility goes right down the drain along with your authority.

Children need limits. They often crave limits. They need responsible adults to teach them what is right and wrong. Adults need limits, too. Unfortunately, many children reach adulthood without learning what is acceptable and what is not. They never learned how to follow rules and set their own limits. It then becomes the responsibility of those around them and the criminal justice system to set the limits for them.

The fourth step is to model good behavior. When children have good modeling, they learn acceptable behaviors simply by living. When they do not have good modeling, others in society often need to develop some sort of behavior shaping plan to teach acceptable behavior.

Setting a good example is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. Never underestimate the power of being a good role model.

My husband and I have raised many foster children, many of whom came into our home with very bad language. They do not hear bad language in our home. Often, their own bad language just subsides on its own with no intervention needed, other than a few reminders. Not all children are that easy to change, of course, so other intervention strategies are needed. Regardless of what is being done to shape behavior in a more positive direction, the fact remains that modeling good behavior is one of the most important tools to use.

All people generally respond better to praise than criticism. When a child is accustomed to using bad language, it often works well to teach them how to express themselves in a more positive way and then praise them when they do it right the next time. Children often are not taught how to express anger, disappointment, hurt, and so on without using a string of foul words. If you teach them how to expand their vocabularies and express their feelings in a more acceptable way, you will help them in more ways than just behavior control. Good language skills will help them in all areas of their lives.

The last step is stick to your plan. Whatever plan you use, be aware that unacceptable behaviors do not go away overnight. In fact, they usually get worse before they get better. The reason is because these behaviors were acquired because they were self-serving, and when they no longer work, the person steps up his/her efforts to make them work prior to acquiescing to any sort of behavior shaping modality. Many children and adults have used verbal abuse for many years and it has become a way of life. If you want to help a child who uses abusive language, consult with a counselor, behavior specialist, psychiatrist, or anyone else that you believe might be able to help you develop a behavior shaping plan. If an adult uses abusive language towards you, set limits immediately. If possible, just stay away from them. On-going verbal abuse is very damaging to the self-esteem. Protect yourself from it, and, if possible, help the abuser in the process.

Credits: Pauline D. Ruthrauff

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Visitor Comments (1)
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Renee - 9 months ago
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You and your husband are some strong, generous people! I appreciate the article very much. I am impressed that you've been able to shape abusive behaviors by your firm example and plan. Thanks. Gonna try some of this. #1
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