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Unkind Words Hurt the Brain

A developing brain can be damaged by unkind words, a study shows. (FILE PHOTO)
A developing brain can be damaged by unkind words, a study shows. (FILE PHOTO)
Unkind Words Hurt the Brain
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

There is a popular saying in the English language: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Well, that is not true.

Unkind words, name-calling or even the so-called “the silent treatment” can hurt children as much as being physically hit, sometimes even more so.

A recent study of middle school children showed that verbal abuse by other children can harm development in the brain. The study was a project of researchers at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts.

Researcher Martin Teicher and his team studied young adults, ages 18 to 25. These young men and women had no experience with domestic violence, sexual abuse or physical abuse by their parents.

The researchers asked the young people to rate their childhood exposure to verbal abuse from both parents and other children. Then the researchers performed imaging tests on the brains of the subjects.

The images showed that the individuals who reported suffering verbal abuse from their peers in middle school had underdeveloped connections between the left and right side of the brain.

The two sides of the brain are connected by a large bundle of connecting fibers called the corpus callosum. This was the area that was underdeveloped.

The middle school years are a time when these brain connections are developing. So, unkind, hurtful comments from children or adults during this period had the greatest effect.

The researchers tested the mental and emotional condition of all the young people in the study. The tests showed that this same group of individuals had higher levels of fear, depression, anger and drug abuse than others in the study.

The researchers published their findings online on the American Journal of Psychiatry’s website.

We cannot control what other people say to our children. But we can prepare them. A website called suggests 64 things that all children need to hear.

Here, are our top 20.

  1. I am curious what you think.
  2. You are creative.
  3. I believe in you.
  4. You can ask for help.
  5. You make me smile
  6. I have faith in you.
  7. You are imperfect. So am I.
  8. You are a good friend.
  9. I will do my best to keep you safe.
  10. Trust your instincts.
  11. My world is better with you in it.
  12. I love you.
  13. It’s fun to do things with you.
  14. You are valuable.
  15. Your choices matter.
  16. You can change your mind.
  17. You make a difference.
  18. I’m ready to listen.
  19. You can learn from your mistakes.
  20. I’m proud of you.

Share one or more of these statements with a child in your life. Actually, maybe we all need to hear some of these statements.

Choose another and say it to an adult you care about.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

peer n. a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else

curious adj. having a desire to learn or know more about something or someone

creative adj. having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas

faith n. strong belief or trust in someone or something

instinct n. something you know without learning it or thinking about it : a natural ability

valuable adj. very useful or helpful

proud adj. having a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction especially with a person's own achievements or with someone else's achievements