Children and parents are not perfect. Parents will make mistakes, just like every other human. No matter how insightful, well-adjusted, or how much we work on ourselves, we can never completely avoid our negative traits. And therefore, we can never completely shield children from our negative traits either.
Gaslighting is a specific kind of manipulation in which the victim often is left questioning their own reality, memory, and perceptions. This is considered one of the most detrimental forms of emotional and psychological abuse. Typically, this manipulation is used in abusive relationships in order for the abuser to gain more power and control. This tactic is generally used over a period of time so as to gradually undermine a victims mindset of what is right and wrong and forcing them to be dependent on the other person’s thinking and feelings.
You will often find the act of gaslighting in correlation with people diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is a disorder in which a person has grandiose ideas of him/herself and thrives for constant affirmation and validation. This is achieved through gaslighting. Because of their own psychological impairments, many times the gaslighter is not fully aware of their own actions.
As adults, it can be difficult to realize that we have been sucked into this cycle of demeaning. Bring awareness to how you feel and validate your own feelings. Believe in your gut reaction that something isn’t right. If you feel comfortable and safe, start using some of the phrases suggested below.
Now what about children? How on earth could we possible gaslight our own children. Honestly, in much of the same way. Remember, nobody is perfect (and you don’t have to be a narcissist), but there are a few things that we may do out of frustration that can be more detrimental to our child’s self esteem, confidence, and emotional growth, if we do not take the moment to acknowledge what we are doing. Some of the general side effects include irritability, aggressiveness, anxiety, rigidity, paranoia, and distrust of others.
What can happen: Parents will gaslight their children when they themselves feel overwhelmed and not being aware of how they have been triggered themselves, and set up triggers for their child to become upset. This happens all the time, like if you know what you’re going to say is going to upset your child. But the difference is that lack of awareness around self, and when the child does become upset, they are NOT validated in their own feelings, but instead one of the following:
6 Signs that You’re Gaslighting Your Child
- You exaggerate every conflict: everything your child does wrong causes you to feel extremely upset, even if the issue isn’t as large. For example, if your child lies about brushing your teeth vs. your teenager lying about stealing the car, both make you fly off the handle. This can cause children to question themselves and “walk on egg shells” around you. It has the potential for children to lie or hide things more often for fear of the verbal putdowns or explosive outbursts. They become confused about what’s going to set you off.
- Inflexibility: It’s normal to not let everything slide, but this is the extreme. No matter what happens, you refuse to allow for any changes in the daily routine. For whatever reason, the need to be in control and make sure things are on a schedule is pertinent to your ability to feel calm and happy. However, the likelihood that a toddler goes down for a nap at the exact same time everyday is rare. The schedule often also often revolves around what is best for the parent vs what is best for the child. Constantly snapping or becoming upset creates a lack of esteem and confidence in a child and forces them to disregard what naturally feels best for themselves, and focus on what is best for your mood.
- Mocking behavior/abandoning when upset: When your child is upset and crying, you act like you are upset and crying but become flippant about it as well. You ignore your child’s cries when they become more intense and say things like, “I don’t know why you’re so upset”, or “You’re doing this to yourself.” You may also completely leave when your child is upset, or when they become increasingly upset. This is for a personal benefit rather than an attempt to calm a child down.
- Over-asserting Power: At some point, children become more independent and want to be with their own friends. For some parents, this is more difficult and instead of encouragement, there is a general dismissal of your child’s ability to function without you. There are constant reminders of what they can and cannot do. You say “no” in order to keep them close not for a logistical and logical reason. You may talk poorly about their friends, or discourage them from trying new activities because they might not make the team or be good enough. These things isolate your child and further deepen feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem.
- Insisting that you know your child better than they know themselves: Of course children don’t always know what is best for them, but children are much more aware of what they are feeling even if they can’t articulate it. If you’re gaslighting your child, when they are upset, you attribute their feelings to something outside of yourself. It can’t possibly be your own fault, and you can’t have anything to do with them being sad or angry. You will trivialize how your child feels, their memories, and perceptions which is the ultimate definition of gaslighting.
- Never Apologizing: Apologies are unacceptable with gaslighting. They are a surrender of power and control which is equivalent to little or no worth. You may feel that you never really need to apologize and more often wait for your child to come to you after a conflict regardless of whomever is at fault. A child will stop trying after a while, build resentment, and develop a mistrusting relationship with other adults. They may have difficulty when they think someone is mad at them and become anxious to fix the problem.
If you notice these patterns within your family and self, seek counseling to try and create greater self awareness.
It’s not uncommon for all of us to have become frustrated to the point of engaging in one of these signs. Whether it be waiting to apologize, or saying no because you’re just unhappy today. It happens. But when it becomes a consistent pattern of behavior, that is when children will begin to develop varying difficulties, because if it’s a consistent pattern, it’s gaslighting.