Verbal Bullying

The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me” is only half right — words can and do hurt. Words can be used as weapons, and the mouth can pack a powerful and lasting punch to the self-esteem. It doesn't matter if the verbal taunts or gossip is true; true or not, it's painful when someone says things about you that are spiteful or downright cruel.

Verbal bullying starts at a very young age and is popular with both boys and girls. Even in preschool classrooms, you can often hear teases and taunts such as, “You're a poopy head!” “No, you're a poopy head!” “You can't kick the ball! Nah-na-na-nah-na!” “You pick your nose!” “Do not!” “Do so … nose-picker!”

Kids think these taunts are hilarious, and practically dance with excitement when they deliver such so-called funny lines. And granted, these kids aren't really trying to be cruel, they're just having a good time and seeking the attention and approval of their peers. When other kids laugh at the goofiness, a preschooler feels great.


Kids bully as early as preschool. The most common way the pint-sized crowd puts down peers is with these three behaviors: verbal taunts — “You're such a crybaby! Boo-hoo-hoo”; exaggerated body gestures — the bully will rub his eyes and make a mock sad face; social exclusion — “Go away! Cry babies aren't allowed to play with us!”

Preschool is exactly where the intervention needs to begin. Too often adults see this behavior and think it's cute and funny. It's not cute and funny, it's a precursor to the more damaging teasing and taunting that older bullies employ. Today it's “You're a poopy head”; tomorrow it's, “You're a %@!#&.”

Virtually any behavior can become a habit, and even without the reinforcement of laughing peers and ineffective tsk-tsking of adults, kids can fall into a cycle of abuse. On the other hand, subtle encouragement or even the absence of discouragement can serve as powerful reinforcement to continue the behavior.

The difference between a four-year-old's taunt and a seven-year-old's taunt is the intent. Hopefully, a four-year-old learns by the time he's in first grade that taunting other children is not acceptable, and that it hurts other kid's feelings.

So when this type of behavior continues in the later grades, you can be certain that the child who taunts is doing it with the specific intent to hurt the other child's feelings. It's no longer a version of the preschool goofy look-at-me antics that can, and should, be nipped in the bud. It's not one child entertaining others by making up silly and nonsensical names; it's a way to simultaneously one up and put down a classmate. And the older a child gets the worse it gets.

Here are some of the ways bullies can use language and words to hurt:

  • Name calling — “Crybaby,” “Faggot,” “Pizza face,” “Fatso,” “Butt face.”

  • Taunting — “Your butt is so big you need two chairs! Hahaha!” “Nobody likes you, not even the teacher!”

  • Swearing — “You're a %@!#&*” “I'm gonna pound your %@!#&* face!”

  • Spreading rumors — “Cameron doesn't shower and smells like a donkey's a**.” “Jill slept with the entire basketball team and got herpes!”

  • Gossip — “Beth hates Lexi, and says it's because Lexi is snobby and stuck up.” “I heard Chandra slept with Emily's boyfriend behind her back.”

  • Note writing — “Dear freak, I hope you die!” “I'm out to get you. Watch your back!”

  • Whisper campaigns — A group of girls pointedly stare at another girl while whispering in each other's ears. The intention is to make the lone girl feel like everyone is talking about her in a negative way.

  • Secret revealing — One girl befriends another with the sole purpose to find out her secrets, which she then tells all of the other girls in an effort to embarrass and humiliate her.

  • Laughing at someone's mistakes — Children with learning disabilities are frequent targets for ridicule.

  • Making up stories to get someone in trouble — There is no limit on the string of lies a bully will tell to get his victim in trouble.

  • Insulting nicknames — It can take an entire school career to shake a particularly nasty nickname given by a bully at a young age.

  • Hate speech — These are racially or ethnically motivated insults or comments meant to demean.

  • Mocking or imitating — This is often used to torture kids who stutter or have physical or verbal tics.

  • Sexual bullying — This is often achieved through telling dirty jokes, writing graffiti on the bathroom wall, and uttering derogatory sexual slurs.

  • Threats — When a bully uses fear to intimidate.

  • Prank phone calls — It's mortifying for a child to have her parents hear what names and insults she's being called at school.

Verbal bullying can sometimes be more hurtful and damaging to a child's confidence and self-esteem than physical bullying. Verbal bullying attacks a child's personality, physical attributes, and social status. It slowly erodes his confidence and attacks his sense of self.


Children of mothers who are prone to yell, scream, and verbally berate will often admit, “I wish she would just hit me and be done with it.” Somehow, it's less painful to suffer a slap or a punch than to be forced to endure an ongoing verbal barrage. Some bullied kids feel the same way.

Kids can be taunted about anything and everything: height, weight, appearance, academic abilities, physical abilities, social skills, and home life. Virtually no topic is off limits.

But it's important to remember that taunts are often exaggerated or even completely untrue. A girl who taunts another by calling her fat doesn't really care whether or not the victim is fat. The bully is trying to insult her, she'll stick with whatever taunt gets a reaction. Boys who are called “fags” aren't usually homosexual, but because the word gets the bullied kids so riled up, bullies continue to say it.

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