You’ve probably heard the term gaslighting by now — after all, it’s been a buzzword for the last few years. What you may not have realized, though, is that gaslighting doesn’t just apply to the dynamic of a romantic relationship. Whether you knew it prior to this point, you may have grown up with a gaslighting parent. Or maybe you’re here because you’re afraid you’re the one engaging in this toxic behavior with your own children. Either way, it’s important to be able to spot the signs of a gaslighting parent.
Before we dive into the psyche, take a deep breath and repeat after us: No parent is perfect. If what you’re about to read hits a little too close to home, remember that we’re all inherently flawed as human beings, and that carries over into the parenting realm. No matter how hard we try, we’re all going to do something that has the potential to negatively affect our kids. Having said that, gaslighting merits cautioning against since it’s a particularly egregious form of toxic parental behavior.
What is gaslighting?
Psychology Today defines gaslighting as “the use of deflection, distraction, and blame by one person to hide some truth, or to benefit in some way, at the cost of another.” It’s an especially insidious form of psychological torment because sometimes the person doing the gaslighting doesn’t even realize they’re guilty of the behavior.
Where did the term “gaslighting” come from?
If gaslighting seems like a strange word to describe this toxic behavior, well, it’s because it sort of is — unless you’re familiar with the 1938 play by the same name. Or the movie that came after starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the story, a husband dims the gas-powered lights in the couple’s home every night, only to vehemently deny doing so when his wife notices. It’s a twisted exercise in power, control, and manipulation.
Is it really that bad?
In a word, yes. Speaking to Health magazine in February 2020, clinical psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis pointed out that being gaslit distorts your sense of reality. It invalidates your personal perception. “Having your reality questioned has got to be the most damaging thing out there because our reality and the way we think about the world is kind of all we have,” he explained.
Long-term effects of gaslighting on a child can be things like anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, paranoia, distrust, and even perpetuating the cycle of gaslighting itself.
What are the signs?
One of the trickiest things about identifying a gaslighting parent is the parent-child dynamic — one that is inherently imbalanced from the start. Children tend to look to their parents to confirm their view of the world, and they typically trust the response what their parent tells them.
However, there are certain signs that might serve as red flags. Here are a few examples.
Rewriting history: Is it possible that a child and parent will have different recollections of the same event? Sure. But a gaslighting parent tends to undermine their child’s recollection, regardless of what it is. They’ll discredit the child’s memories with brush-offs like, “You’re exaggerating!” or “Stop being so dramatic — it was nothing.”
Creating unhealthy competition: This type of parent will likely foster some sort of unhealthy competitive dynamic in the home. They might compete with the child for attention or even friends. Gaslighting parents also have a tendency to pit siblings against one another. The child being gaslit will serve as the scapegoat, while the parent puts a sibling on a pedestal.
Undermining success: In a similar being, the parent might actively diminish their child’s success. Got accepted to an Ivy League college? They’ll tell you it’s a waste of money. Got a promotion at your first job? They might suggest your employer made a mistake or there was a reason other than merit that swayed the decision-making process.
Denying their own actions: Perhaps one of the most perplexing aspects of a gaslighter is the fact that they’ll deny something they said or did, even when faced with irrefutable truth. They’ll lie for no reason, as though doing it for sport. And they’ll double down in their dishonesty if you try to challenge it. It goes without saying that being raised in a household with someone who lies about everything can definitely affect the value a child places on the truth.
Exaggerating conflict: Gaslighters are also notoriously volatile. Anything can set them off and, often, it’s little things you wouldn’t expect to be such a big deal. Maybe their child knocked off a glass of water. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a blip. An honest mistake. Typical kid behavior. But it could make a gaslighter lose their shit, making the child feel like everything they do is wrong.
Refusing to apologize: To apologize to someone is to admit you were wrong. To admit you were wrong is to relinquish control. A gaslighter isn’t going to want to do that. Instead, they’ll dig in their heels after an argument. They’ll either wait it out long enough for the child to “get over it,” or until the child apologizes (it doesn’t matter if the conflict clearly wasn’t the child’s fault). A gaslighting parent has to be right about everything… even when they’re not.
Mocking: Spoiler alert? Gaslighters are bullies. And bullies mock people. So, gaslighting parents may mock their own child. They might even go out of their way to humiliate them. The seeds of shame planted in those moments tend to take root pretty deeply — which is to say, those feelings can be tough to dig out later in life.
Where should you go from here?
If you think your parent might be gaslighting you, don’t feel shame in seeking out counsel. Therapy can help you (and possibly the gaslighter) navigate the complex psychological ramifications involved. And, likewise, if you fear you might be guilty of gaslighting your own children, reach out to a mental health professional so you can break the toxic cycle.
Quotes About Gaslighting
“Some people will label you as vindictive, unforgiving or even evil for not allowing them to hurt you, yet again.” ― Wayne Gerard Trotman
“If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused.” ― Sandra Horley
“Gaslighting are lies with a purpose to confuse and control.” ― Tracy Malone
“Gaslighting is implanted narratives cloaked in secrecy.” ― Tracy Malone
“Emotional abuse is designed to undermine another’s sense of self.
It is deliberate humiliation, with the intent to seize control of how others feel about themselves.” ― Lorraine Nilon