Parental gaslighting is fairly common. Parents may gaslight their children without even realizing it – it’s a normal thing. The seemingly innocuous lies to get our kids to obey/comply are not considered gaslighting. Parents believe they need to befuddle the truth for their child’s own good. It’s for a child’s best to dismiss a child’s perception/reality. After all, children don’t understand, their perceptions do not matter.
However, when a child’s perceptions and feelings about some issue/situation are dismissed, brushed aside with half-truths, or denials, they grow up feeling confused and anxious – unable to trust themselves.
Trying to control what your child should like, dislike and believe in can be damaging. You may think it inconsequential but there can be terrible ramifications. They lose the ability to think and maybe make life-saving judgments.
All of us are born with an innate gut instinct, however, when we gaslight our children we teach our children to overlook/override their perceptions of a person/situation. Maybe, that bigger-sized person knows best. A child’s hardwired to believe that parents/significant adults know better.
The Term Gaslighting
The term gaslighting comes from the 1930s play, later made into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, the gaslighting husband, Charles Boyer manipulates the physical environment. He does so, in order to undermine his wife’s reality so as to make her crazy and gain an upper hand. He denies/dismisses the footsteps in the empty attic and the flickering of the gaslights which are caused by his snooping around.
In the beginning, she believes what she hears. But slowly as he challenges her and tries to discredit her perceptions of the truth, she begins to question her own reality. Ultimately, she feels she’s going insane.
Denying, dismissing, deflecting, and minimizing, are some gaslighting tactics used to confuse and manipulate people/situations.
Gaslighting Is a Form of Emotional Abuse
Gaslighting is a form of emotional and verbal abuse. It makes us doubt what we see, hear, and believe. We begin to doubt our perceptions, making us feel confused and crazy.
Children are extremely vulnerable to gaslighting because their sense of self is still forming. Moreover, they are totally dependent on the people who may be gaslighting them – their parents/caregivers.
Even though they may experience cognitive dissonance, they deal with these crazy-making inconsistencies by creating a false narrative. They will adjust, deny, distort, select and repackage the situation.
To survive they need to idealize mom/dad, what he/she is saying is the only truth. After all, being older means that they are wiser. This false perception continues into adulthood until one wakes up to the ugly truth of our childhood.
We were manipulated and gaslit for the convenience of the adults.
Often, to survive and continue to be accepted by our dysfunctional family system, we will begin gaslighting ourselves.
We explain away bad behavior by empathizing with the abuser or we pretend it wasn’t so bad.
Or we believe we should not feel this way, maybe you are over-sensitive.
Sometimes, we deal with the original emotion with meta-emotions. Even though someone was nasty, you override it with being pleasant. This toxic positivity can be very damaging to one’s health.
I spent most of my teen years believing that turning the other cheek was the right way to act. Besides being my ticket to heaven. Sadly, it only turned my mind into living hell.
Self-gaslighting is when you suppress how you truly feel in order to not upset the other person. It is a codependent coping strategy.
How Gaslighting Parenting Can Make A Child Succeptable to Predators
Gaslighting is a control tactic often passed off as parenting. Often it is subtle and difficult to detect, particularly in parent-child dynamics, where this form of power play is the norm.
It has only recently dawned on me that my mother gaslit me quite a bit.
Even though my mother on many counts was a good enough mother, she often gaslighted me. This did make me susceptible to predators in the family.
One day when we were on some outing, my mom realized I had put my underwear back to front. Being such a perfectionist, she was insistent on putting it correctly.
Even as a 5-year-old, I was aware that this being a public place, it was not an appropriate thing to do. However, my mother was quite relentless, and she untruthfully said that ‘in this corner, no one could see.’
I was uncomfortable, however, I was unable to push back against my mother’s insistence. It was exhausting as a child to stand up to the cajoling of a domineering adult. Even though I wasn’t fine with it I accepted my mother’s warped truth. If an adult says, ‘take off your underwear, it is not wrong.’
Not long, after a pedophile cousin, 10 years older did this to me, and I did not protest. I had stopped trusting my feelings about what was right and wrong. Even though I was uncomfortable, I went along, protesting was too taxing.
Being gaslit as a child changes how we analyze and perceive situations/people. Our brain gets wired to doubt our own feelings and perceptions.
Mindful Parenting – Become Aware of How You Communicate
Do you ever ignore, deny, or trivialize what your child says? Do you flippantly brush aside what they say as incorrect or unimportant? You may not realize but this can hurt your child’s self-esteem and trust in you in the long run.
Dismissing a child’s feelings is more convenient. It is time-consuming having to deal with their questions and non-compliance. Oh, parenting can be quite exhausting, dealing with the emotional highs and lows of a child.
Most parents don’t start out wanting to gaslight. Unfortunately, they don’t have the skill-set to deal with a child’s issues, particularly that of compliance/obedience. It is easier to coerce, shame, blame, and project a false narrative than deal with matters honestly.
Most parents are unaware of how they talk with their kids. They parent the way they have been parented. If you grew up with gaslighting parents that is the communication blueprint you operate from.
I had to learn to not brush aside my son’s feelings and really pay close attention to what he was saying. Mindful parenting takes time and effort.
How Not To Gaslight Your Child
1) Don’t Dismiss Their Feelings/ Perceptions
A parent may often tell her upset child to stop crying when they are sad/hurt. Big boys/girls don’t cry. Or this is not something to be sad about. There is worse suffering in the world
For an adult it may be nothing to be sad about, however, a young child has a different emotional makeup. If something is making your child feel sad or your child is crying, acknowledge their pain, listen and comfort them.
Telling them this is such a silly thing to be sad about will make them repress and deny their feelings. It is common knowledge now that the repression of emotions/feelings has a detrimental effect on one’s health.
2) Don’t Deny The Facts – When Necessary Apologize
As parents we all make mistakes, but pretending it never happened and not apologizing is gaslighting.
If your child says you are not paying attention, or that you are being unfair don’t brush it off as nonsense.
Ask them why they are saying so, ponder if there is any truth in what they are saying, give explanations. But if you have really made a mistake, apologize.
Most parent-child relationships get messed up when parents refuse to accept they made a mistake or that they unbeknownst hurt a child.
Saying sorry will not diminish you in your child’s eyes. In fact, they will respect you more, and thereby, they will become more upright and honest themselves.
Apologizing does not make you less of a parent, it shows your child you are human too. You may fail but you still love them.
3) Don’t Blame, Shame, or Name Call – Discuss The Matter
It is not uncommon to blame, shame, or brand kids when they do something which displeases the parent.
You are so stupid, you always make a hash of things, and you will never amount to anything.
Quite a few of us grew up hearing these kinds of derogatory remarks. Hearing these hurtful labels not just momentarily demoralized us, it had long-term consequences on our self-esteem and confidence.
My father was an expert at this destructive communication strategy. Over time it so eroded my confidence, that even making a phone call felt so stressful. And then he’d lament why we were not as successful as his friend’s kids.
If your child makes a mistake, ask why they did it and discuss better alternatives of action. Advise your child don’t criticize.
4) Be Flexible – See Their Point of View
There are many ways at reaching a destination, just as there are many solutions to any problem.
Don’t be so rigid in your way of doing things – consider your child’s point of view too. Be flexible and open to negotiation. Also, keep in mind each child is temperamentally different. What is fine for one child may not be acceptable to the other.
Have a discussion and come to a mutually acceptable consensus.
Being dictatorial and insisting on doing things your way will turn your child into a liar or worse stuck in a loop of doubt and indecisiveness.
5) Keep Your Promises
Always keep your promises whether it is playing with them, buying them something, or taking them for an outing.
Remember what you tell them. Don’t make arbitrary promises which you have no intention of keeping and then at a later date deny having said something.
This type of gaslighting is very hurtful. It shakes the core of a child’s trust in you and the world.
6) Acknowledge and Appreciate Their Contribution
Often, a child has to step up and take on more responsibilities which are primarily the parents. Don’t downplay and ignore your child’s contribution to the family’s well-being. It is extremely, distressing and damaging to be unacknowledged and unappreciated. It is an insidious form of gaslighting.
As a pre-teen who was still struggling with the loss of my mother’s death, I had to help out my grandmother babysitting my cousins from their toddler days. Not once did my grandmother or the parents thank me or show any kind of appreciation.
It was only recently, I realized that this was parentification – a form of abuse. Even today, it hurts, and a residue of bitterness still singes my soul.
This non-appreciation of my contribution undermined my confidence and made me underestimate my talents and skillset.
Acknowledge and praise the child when they help you selflessly. A simple thank-you or a warm hug of appreciation will really help boost their self-esteem.
7) Forcing Them To Be Polite and Nice
Often parents say, ‘now be a good girl and share your toys.’ Or ‘give grandpa a hug.’
Now even if little Janice, doesn’t want to for whatever reason she has to override her feelings/needs and fall in line with mom’s dictates. This type of gaslighting can be extremely damaging. Later on, grown-up Janice will feel coerced to give her money to some thug just because mom taught her to be nice. Or will end up in a relationship with a cunning manipulator.
Children can be very intuitive when it comes to people, whether they are good or bad. Forcing a child to override his instinctual responses to fit in with a societal narrative can be very dangerous.
They don’t learn to maintain boundaries and protect their interests.
If your child is particularly mean or selfish, privately ask them why – what is the reason she does not want to share her toys with Betty? And what is the reason she doesn’t want to hug grandpa?
Even if is a trivial reason, don’t dismiss it and push her to go against her gut instincts. As long as she is not being cruel and hurting someone she has a right to consent to what she will allow in her life.
Respect that – your child’s healthy choices shouldn’t unduly affect your self-image.
Become Aware of Your Gaslighting Mode of Communication
Most parents who gaslight do not do so with malevolent intent. Often, it is done trying to protect or calm a child. However, telling your child who is afraid of storms, ‘don’t be a sissy, it’s not a real storm, go back to bed, ‘ is not the solution.
Don’t undermine your child’s reality, by minimizing/dismissing their fears/worries – validate their feelings. Be aware of your words and actions.
Remember, each of us has our unique perceptions of any given situation. A child may perceive things differently from their parents. But that doesn’t make him/her wrong or stupid. For an adult, it may not be a real threat but for a child, the terror can be very visceral, particularly if they have heard stories of the devastation caused by storms.
Most parents think pretending or denying a child’s perceptions is protecting their child. Even when their fears are imaginary – like ghosts, dismissing them as silliness does not make the feeling go away.
Maybe at a later date, they will outgrow their fears and laugh at their silliness but till that time, listen, reason, and reassure them that you are there to protect them.
One’s perceptions/gut feelings are important pointers in our life journey. Help your child tune into the truth of these internal messages.
Image Source: Pixabay
Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication –Oren Jay Sofer
Remapping Your Mind: The Neuroscience of Self-Transformation through Story –Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Good Inside: A Practical Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be – Dr. Becky Kennedy