Psychologists use the term “gaslighting” to refer to a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions. According to leading psychologists it’s always a serious problem! There is usually a power imbalance and the recipient of the gaslighting has a lot to lose whether it be love, finances or a job.
But what does parental gaslighting look like and why is it so dangerous? Most parents want the best for their children and want their lives to go well. Usually the “gaslighting” happens when we are trying to help negotiate our children’s big feelings. Something happens, like the child falls down and starts to cry, or in the example on my podcast the child was nipped on his leg by a teething puppy and when he came crying his parents they wanted the tears to stop at any cost. They told him he was lying and it wasn’t a big deal. P.S. I saw the puppy nipping at the child and volunteered that information but they were invested in their child not being upset. This most likely is how that would have been handled in the dad’s family of origin and is a familiar way to respond. I know this happened to me a lot when I was growing up and it left me feeling alone and convinced there was something wrong with me. I’ve heard a lot of other statements that can also be thought of as gas-lighting. Ie: that doesn’t really hurt, that doesn’t look so bad, you’re over reacting or you must have done something to deserve that etc. It is generally in an effort to try to make the crying or the hurt stop with the thought that if the crying stops than the hurt will go away. The truth is that not validating a young person’s feelings and telling them they don’t feel that way leads to uncertainty, confusion, feeling stupid, feeling unlovable and a whole host of useless and harmful emotions. These emotions don’t just go away and will stay quietly lurking in the back of their mind looking for ways to continue to be worked on or find evidence that they can’t trust people to believe them. Once you are looking for evidence that there is something wrong with you confirmation bias will find it at every turn.
What I suggest is to remember that you are not your child and what they think and feel isn’t what you think and feel. Often the pain of our children affects us so significantly that we will do anything to stop the showing of pain so we can feel better. We don’t need our children to feel better in order for us to be able to handle our emotions. Remember you can take responsibility for how you think and react and that is something that our children might not have a handle on in the same way.
When presented with a situation where your child is hurt or upset:
1) Stop and listen. Really get to know your mind!
2) Notice any judgmental thoughts.
3) Intercept the judgment. Remember if you are you can do the “Positive Parenting Reps” where we focus fully on one sensation: for example, notice all the features of your child’s face. (I teach in my book “Shut Up and Act Dumb: A parents’ guide to staying close and connected to your teens and tweens)
4) Be curious and continue to ask questions
5) Allow big feelings to come without trying to stop it or make it better
6) Go and find a peer cheering partner if you are still upset or need to get some support. (also, a concept from my book) where you exchange an equal amount of listening time with one of your friends or partners.
Remember it is never any skin off of your back to listen to your children when things get hard. If anything, it will earn you so many brownie points that your kids will come to you with really important issues and you will keep them much safer!
This might not come naturally at first considering the ways in which we were parented but even the slightest bit of understanding and change will be noticed. Be compassionate and kind with yourself even if it isn’t “perfect”
If this resonates with you and you want me to help you quickly stop worrying so you can keep your family connected and safe hop on a quick free consultation with Dr. Nikki and see the big, joyous and fun life you will create.
Or send me a quick message with any thoughts or suggestions for further topics. firstname.lastname@example.org
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