We've Been Unintentionally Gaslighting Our Kids, And This Is Why It Matters

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
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Life is hard. Stop whining. Stop being so sensitive. It’s not a big deal. Suck it up. You’re fine. Quit bothering me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this, from many people throughout my life, and from other parents. And I’m ashamed to admit how many times I’ve said this, in some form, to my own kids – because when they’re in tears over something that I think is ridiculous, my first instinct is to tell them exactly how ridiculous I think it is.

Earlier this week, my son came crying to me because he’d been arguing with his brother. Since the argument was over something I thought was minor — and I was trying to work — I waved him away like an annoying mosquito, dismissing his tears as nothing more than overreaction, and blowing off something that, to him, felt like a very big deal.

But then I came across the term “gaslighting,” and it dawned on me (with a heinous stab of guilt, naturally) that I’d been doing it to my kids without even meaning to. And it’s far more common among parents than any of us probably realize.

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light, where a husband dims the gas-powered lights unbeknownst to his wife, and then tells her she’s nuts for thinking they’re dim; he says they haven’t changed at all, and that if she thinks they’re dim it’s because she has some sort of problem. Consequently, over time, she questions her own judgments and becomes uncertain about her perception of reality because she’s been told, over and over, that she’s wrong, when that isn’t the case. So to break it down, gaslighting is when one person tries to persuade another that their feelings and experiences are inaccurate or misguided.

The vast majority of parents, including me, are guilty of this in some manner. And the same majority of us would never intentionally inflict harm upon our kids. In fact, you’re probably wracking your brain as you read this, going through recent scenarios where you might have inadvertently gaslighted (trust me: I’m in the same boat here).

It isn’t that we’re bad parents, because we’re not trying to screw up our kids; in fact, we tell them to “suck it up” because we think it will help them by making them more resilient. We gaslight them because we fear that if we don’t, they’ll grow up unable to deal with the crappy misfortunes life throws at them, and their lack of coping mechanisms will be all our fault.

But just because we’ve heard it over and over doesn’t make it right, and when we dismiss their emotions, we’re actually invalidating them. Instead of empathy and understanding, we’re telling them that their experience, their natural feelings about a situation, are wrong. Our children look to us, the most influential authority figures in their lives, to teach them how the world works, and then we use that power to tell them they don’t know anything. Maybe we don’t agree that it’s something they should be upset about, but here’s the thing: It isn’t up to us. Their feelings aren’t ours to dictate.

If we were them, seeing the world through their limited scope, we would likely feel the same way. It isn’t that they’re having a meltdown over something stupid; to them, it is a really big deal. But since we have more experience as adults, we know that, say, being unable to tie your shoe after repeated attempts isn’t worth crying over; we’ve been through enough to know that there are much worse things than a little frustration over a comparatively minor issue. And they will eventually figure out how to tie their shoes.

But kids have no bigger problems to compare it to. So looking at the problem through their tiny window of experience, it seems a lot more serious – and worth the tears they’re shedding. Just think of the scenario from a grownup perspective: if my car broke down and I didn’t have the money to fix it, I’d be upset, and let’s just say, I would not take kindly to anyone telling me to “just suck it up.” It just doesn’t work that way, and it’s unfair of us to expect that of our children.

By gaslighting our kids, we’re sending the message that they’re not allowed to say they’re not okay. We’re teaching them to question their own judgment, ignore their own instincts, and stuff their feelings. We’re teaching them that they can’t even trust themselves, because their natural responses are wrong. We’re making them less likely to ask for help when they legitimately need it, for fear of being ridiculed.

When we do this, their sense of self-confidence in their own decision-making abilities gradually erodes. (And let’s just imagine how that will play out when they’re teenagers being offered drugs or alcohol at a party.) Not only that, but if we’re constantly telling them they’re reacting incorrectly, they’ll start to believe they’re abnormal, which leads into a sad spiral of anxiety, frustration and diminished self-esteem, all things that definitely will not help them master adult life.

We have the best of intentions, of course. We hope to raise our kids to roll with the punches and not get emotionally caught up in unimportant matters. We worry that if we don’t teach them to suck it up, we’ll be raising a bunch of whiny wimps who “can’t even.” But if we’re treading into gaslighting territory, we have to take a step back and realize that this isn’t the best parenting practice. When we know better, we can do better.

By showing our kids compassion and allowing them to openly express what they’re feeling, even when we don’t quite understand why they’re upset, we’re teaching them to be empathetic. We’re modeling the ability to understand another’s situation and what they’re experiencing, a skill that will make a huge difference in the way they navigate relationships in adulthood. We’re teaching them to manage their emotions rather than bottle them up to fester. And eventually they’ll learn what’s worth being upset about and what isn’t, to distinguish the important stuff from the trivial — all of which comes with experience.

So what’s a parent to do? Well, we can stop gaslighting by listening to our kids when they tell us they’re feeling sad or sick or full (because, yes, even making them continue eating when they say they’re no longer hungry is a form of gaslighting). We can stop invalidating their feelings. And we can start building a strong foundation where we believe what they tell us, and in turn, help them to believe in themselves.

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