You are fine. It didn't hurt. There's nothing to cry about. Look, there's a bird up there. Good kid.
Has anyone told you these when you were a kid? Do you find yourself saying similar things to your child?
If the answer is yes, you might have been a victim of gaslighting and you might unintentionally be letting gaslighting sneak into your parenthood.
In this article, you will find out what gaslighting is, how it shows itself in a parent-child relationship, why parents do it, and how to stop. You can also read more in 15 surprising things to not say to our children helping you improve your communication with your kids. Let's begin!
What is gaslighting?
You're not my equal. I know better than you. You should have listened to me. You are being oversensitive. It wasn't that terrible. You're exaggerating it. That's not what happened. Stop making a big deal out of this. You're fine, you're just trying to make me feel bad. Go to your room and don't come back until you stop crying.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which a person plants seeds of self-doubt in another person. The person who is exposed to gaslighting ends up questioning their own memory, perception, or judgment. Gaslighting can be intentional or unintentional and can show itself either as brainwashing, exaggeration, dismissal, or denial.
What's the origin of the term gaslighting?
The term originated from the play Gas Light (1938) and its 1940 and 1944 film adaptations. The story coined the term gaslighting into the literature of psychology, philosophy, and politics.
In the plot, a husband plays a game of power and control, determined to lock his wife into a sanitarium and claim her jewels. He manipulates his wife into believing she is losing her sanity by systematically changing her environment and pretending she doesn't remember having done so. He dims the gas lights and denies noticing it, hides stuff and blames her for losing them, and makes noises in the attic his wife claims to hear, which he rejects, turning her against herself.
Why is the parent-child relationship is naturally at risk of gaslighting?
Trust binds the victim to the gaslighter. Any relationship that involves power inequalty is a suitable environment for the power holder to apply gaslighting. Although romantic setups produce the majority of examples of gaslighting, parent-child relationships are equally, if not more, suitable for gaslighting to occur.
Parents are not necessarily intentional with gaslighting. In fact, most of the gaslighting examples you will see below gets unnoticed in everyday communication.
Examples of gaslighting in parenting
Gaslighting is about showing a child that their own judgment is not to be trusted. By pointing out their incompetencies, gaslighting parents undermine their children's self-confidence. That's why gaslighted children have a hard time trusting their own emotions and experiences.
Gaslighting is separated from other types of manipulation forms in the way that it involves systematically showing the victim how irrational they are, and turning the victims against themselves in doing so.
If you are wondering whether you are unintentionally gaslighting your children, here are some examples from everyday life.
1) Ignores the child's emotions
The child falls, scrapes his knee, and starts crying. The parent says, "It didn't hurt much, you're fine."
When parents sweep children's difficult emotions under the rug, children learn the wrong lesson that their emotions are not valid and they are "wrong" in feeling bad. They bottle up their emotions as a coping strategy.
2) Insists to know the child's needs better than the child
"You're cold. You're hungry. You're tired, go to sleep."
No matter how small, children know what's best for their bodies. When we assume that they are not grown-up enough to understand their needs, this conveys the wrong message that they are not in charge of listening to their own bodies.
3) Tells the child who they are
"You're a good kid. You're the kind of kid who shares their toys. You're a good student."
Even if we mean well, blanket statements like this mess with the way they see themselves, especially when it's used as a way to manipulate them, such as, "You are the kind of kid who shares their toys, so why don't you be kind and give it to your friend now."
4) Makes "should have" statements
"You should have listened to your mom. You shouldn't have run. You should have done your homework."
Sentences like these destroy the child's independent perspective, turning them against themselves. On top of experiencing the negative consequences from the event, these statements push the child into self-doubt and regret, ("It's my fault.") even though the suffering is not always visible from the outside.
5) Overlooks a child's experience
The child gets hit by his sibling, comes crying to her parent. The parent says, "You must have done something that made him mad."
Rather than listening to the child's subjective experience, some parents rush to "explain" it back to the child. The child's empathy is one of the tools gaslighters exploit in these situations to find the so-called root cause for a negative experience ("I must have done something wrong, otherwise, they wouldn't have hurt me.").
6) Undermines the child's memory
The child remembers an upsetting event. The parent says, "It wasn't that bad. You're exaggerating."
Two people who witnessed the exact same event can have different memories of it. When a gaslighting parent remembers an event differently than the child, they tend to "correct" the memory, causing the children to doubt their own recollection.
7) Victimizes themselves
"I feel sad when you do that. You don't want to make mommy sad."
Children are not supposed to feel responsible for their parents' emotions. This type of manipulation is considered gaslighting because it turns the child to itself, making them see themselves as a "monster" for upsetting the one person they love the most.
How is gaslighting harmful to children?
Because there is a natural power inequality in the parent-child relationship, all children are at risk of being gaslighted unless their parents pay attention.
Children internalize gaslighting. Gaslighting children changes their brain, damaging their self-esteem, causing them to be dependent on the gaslighter for emotional support and validation.
Parent's gaslighting can make the child vulnerable to abusive relationships later in life because the child has gotten used to believing they are overreacting and being overly sensitive to abuse.
Believing that their emotions and perceptions are valid might become a lifelong challenge for the victims of gaslighting. As a result, they cannot stand up for themselves, taking the route of self-blame instead.
Before you conclude, "I'm not doing any of these to my child," mind that gaslighting can be subtle and can embed itself in everyday language.
What makes parents gaslight children?
Parenthood is traditionally perceived as a power status. Parents who have been subject to parental gaslighting in their own childhood are inclined to apply the same communication to their children.
In some other cases, parents may start applying gaslighting when the parent feels losing control over the child as they grow to be more independent. These parents, because they have a hard time accepting the changes in the relationship, can turn to gaslighting to regain control.
Lastly, parents might cover their own insecurities through gaslighting. In order to avoid feeling like a "bad parent," they might choose to manipulate their children into believing they are not competent.
How to avoid gaslighting
Here are a few strategies to avoid gaslighting or stop resorting to it in difficult times.
- Acknowledge your children's feelings, even if they don't make any sense to you. ("I see you.")
- Empathize with their situation even if you don't really understand. ("It must be hard.")
- Accept the fact that children are individuals and they can have bad days. ("It happens.")
- Stop seeing and calling your children oversensitive or irrational. ("It's okay to...")
- Hear the child's perspective, don't assume they are wrong. ("I might have missed that fact.")
- Remember your child is a child, not an adult.
- Recognize your own unmet needs. ("How can I apply more self-compassion?")
In a parent-child relationship, power is there to share. Sharing our power does not turn them into entitled children. It shows them how to make use of their own power when they become adults.
Our children's suffering is not a sign of their weakness, it's a part of being human. Just like all of us, children need validation from other people, especially in difficult situations. When we refuse to offer that interpersonal validation, withdraw emotional support when they need it the most, and push them towards self-doubt, this is gaslighting.
We have immense power over the way they make sense of the world and of themselves. Do we want to exploit that power or do we want to make the best use of it?
- The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life
- Turning Up the Lights on Gaslighting
- The Sociology of Gaslighting
- Gaslighting in the context of clinical interactions with parents of transgender children