The Hurtful Words Adults Use That Harm Children The Most

Two in five children (41%) have experienced verbal abuse from the adults around them, according to a new survey by the charity Words Matter. 

Parents, carers, teachers, friends’ parents, and activity leaders are the primary sources, according to the poll of 1,000 young people aged 11-17 years old.

Most concerning is that over half experience this weekly (51%) and one in 10 experience it daily.

And it’s not just the kids that have noticed – a separate survey of over 1,000 parents revealed that two in three (65%) have heard adults saying unkind words and phrases to children.

The impact of verbal abuse

Verbal abuse has the potential to damage a child for a lifetime. It can affect their self-esteem and confidence, their future potential, and ability to function at home, school, the workplace and in social situations. It has also been linked to poor mental health and can even change the normal workings of the brain.

The latest survey revealed that toxic language can leave children feeling sad, depressed and humiliated. One girl, aged 16, who took part in the survey, said: “I carry this fear with me that everything adults say about me is true.”

An 18-year-old boy added: “If a parent says you’re useless, it makes you feel like you are good for nothing.”

In addition, 46% doubted themselves, 46% felt anxious, 45% felt ashamed, 44% felt embarrassed, 32% felt isolated and 23% felt frightened as a result of verbal abuse.

None of the research findings identified any statistically significant regional or socio-economic differences, demonstrating this is a society-wide issue.

The most hurtful words and phrases for children

Children were asked what words were the most hurtful and upsetting. The top five are:

  1. ‘You’re useless’

  2. ‘You’re stupid’

  3. ‘You can’t do anything right’

  4. ‘You’re worthless’

  5. ‘I’m ashamed of you’

Over half (55%) of the children who took part think adults say unkind or upsetting words intentionally.

When asked to think about why adults may speak to children with hurtful or upsetting language, seven in 10 (69% of) children thought that stresses at home could be the cause.

Unsurprisingly, over half (55%) acknowledged that money worries and the cost of living were the causes of stress.

The most helpful words and phrases for children

Positive words can have a huge impact on a child’s feelings about themselves.

As one boy, aged 17, said: “It makes me really happy when Dad says a good thing to me like, ‘You played really well today’.”

According to the children surveyed, the top five most helpful and encouraging words are:

  1. ‘I am proud of you’

  2. ‘You can do it’

  3. ‘I believe in you’

  4. ‘I’m here for you’

  5. ‘It’s OK to make mistakes, you can learn from them’

Nearly two thirds of children said hearing these words and phrases made them feel encouraged, happy, good about themselves, loved/liked, and confident.

The findings coincide with the launch of new charity, Words Matter, which aims to end verbal abuse to children by the adults around them and improve their mental and physical health and development as a result.

Jessica Bondy, the charity’s founder, experienced childhood verbal abuse herself. She said: “I don’t want another child on this planet to be impacted by the harsh words of adults as it can affect them for a lifetime, like it has me.

“Words carry so much power with children – we all need to build them up, not knock them down. While adults can become overloaded and say things unintentionally, as a society, we must come together to support them and end verbal abuse of children so that each child can reach their potential.

“It is in all our interests to think about how we talk to children to give them the best start in life – if you respect a child, they will respect themselves and others.”

Help and support:

  • Childline - free and confidential support for young people in the UK - 0800 1111