Gaslighting Parents

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“Gaslighting” refers to a form of manipulation where someone attempts to convince another that their reality is inaccurate (Riggs and Bartholomaeus, 2018). This results in one questioning their own beliefs, feelings, and perceptions. One of the most commonly faced phenomena is parental gaslighting, where our parents either consciously or unconsciously attempt to influence our subjective experience or perception of reality. Growing up, our parents or primary caretakers are the first role models in our lives. We adopt their beliefs and understand the world through the lenses they equip us with. Most importantly, because attachment to parents is an innate need for children, we learn to adapt to our parents to preserve this. Here is where gaslighting becomes a little trickier. We could be growing up with parents who have been gaslighting us, and we could have even adapted to them without knowing.

Unintentional Parental Gaslighting

How can gaslighting be unintentional or unconscious?

That said, parents could also be gaslighting their children without knowing that they are doing it. How is this possible? What does unconscious gaslighting even mean?

Unintentional or unconscious gaslighting occurs when the person gaslighting is unaware that their behaviour manipulates the reality of another. While there is no obvious intent to exploit, they may still end up causing the other party to doubt themselves.

Often, where a person lacks the ability to validate another person, they generally lack the capacity to see that they might be gaslighting someone too. In that respect, parents often gaslight unintentionally – this is not because they don’t love their children, but because they don’t understand how they may be saying things or taking actions that are invalidating. Moreover, if parents are not called out for their gaslighting behaviour, they may continue to perpetuate it out of habit, and remain oblivious to the fact that they are causing their child to question their own thoughts and memory.

Why is gaslighting bad? What is the harm done by gaslighting?

Validation is crucial to an individual because everyone has an inherent desire to be seen, heard, and accepted. Gaslighting results in the invalidation of one’s own emotions, perceptions, and reality, and consequently, provokes a sense of abandonment or rejection that has a long-lasting impact on children.

If you are on your quest of determining:

  • if your parents have been gaslighting you;
  • how can you manage or respond to unconscious parental gaslighting; or
  • how can you take care of yourself when being gaslighted,

read on and gather some answers that may benefit you.

Signs of Parental Gaslighting

To understand whether our parents are gaslighting unconsciously or unintentionally, we must first establish that they probably do not know what constitutes it. Also, they likely grew up being subject to gaslighting themselves. But the difference between us and them is that now we have the privilege and awareness to examine, reflect, and transform this largely unconscious practice, and by extension, our relationships.

Here are some examples of unintentional parental gaslighting:

When being called out, they deny it.

When children call their parents out on their unacceptable actions or behaviours, parents may deny ever carrying these out. In doing so, parents may be trying to preserve their positive self-image or be motivated by guilt. The denial may even be a result of a lack of awareness. However, in repeatedly denying their own actions, they end up gaslighting their children instead of validating them.

When such interaction happens frequently, it is easy for children to learn to not share about what they feel.

One important aspect of healthy relationship building is the ability to embrace rupture and choose to repair. Rupture and repair must come together for relationships to work healthily. If a relationship is filled with ruptures but no repair, no one would feel safe enough to continue building the relationship. Many parents who practise gaslighting want to escape relational rupture because they do not understand how repair could work in relationships. Most of the time, it is because they have never experienced healthy repair within a relationship.

Nonetheless, if they deny what their children called them out for, it is a sign of gaslighting.

They are adamant about their memory and their memory only.

Besides denying what they have said or done, if parents are engaging in unconscious parental gaslighting, they may also insist that only their account of the event is accurate. They could tell the child that what he or she remembered was not what exactly happened. There would also be attempts to convince the child of other things they did or said instead. In such interactions, the child might start to feel really confused about what is the truth. On one hand, there is a memory of the incident and what the involved parties have said or done. On the other, the involved parties are either denying or failing to see other sides of the story. In this confusion, it is easy for the child, even into their adulthood, to start wondering whether it was valid to have felt what they felt.

They deflect responsibility and play the victim.

When a child shares with the parents how they have made him or her feel, the latter may turn the table around to victimise themselves instead, in a bid to deflect responsibility for how they made their child feel. They may talk about how the child is being rude or ungrateful, or recount histories where the child has done something wrong and go on about how they are hurt. By doing so, they attempt to redirect the child’s focus onto his or her own guilt. As the parents play the victim’s role, it might also influence the child to sympathise with their story, so that the child can stop calling them out.

Gaslighting parents often diminish the thoughts and feelings of their children.

When the child is visibly affected, they minimise or trivialise their feelings.

Parents could say things like:

  • You are overreacting or exaggerating.
  • Don’t be so dramatic.
  • It is not as serious.
  • You are just too sensitive.
  • You sound or look crazy.
  • It is not a big deal.

All these comments could make the child feel less of themself. Sometimes, such comments are made unconsciously or passingly because parents do not know how to validate emotions. In a sense, they would rather brush off the negative emotions displayed than confront them as it is the easier way out. But the impact of such comments can be detrimental to one’s well-being. It causes one to question if it is valid to feel what they feels. Eventually, one might also learn to abandon one’s feelings to avoid receiving such treatment.

They compare their child with others.

Another way parental gaslighting occurs is when they compare their child’s reactions to that of others. Parents might attempt to convince their child that they should be okay with the situation because others are too. Perhaps they draw examples from their friends’ children or random stories. This comparison is detrimental as well because comparing one’s reality to others also involves invalidating what one has experienced. Two people might ostensibly be in similar circumstances, but one’s previous experiences, history, feelings, reactions, and internal world are usually different from the other. And for parents to be reacting this way, the children could never be truly seen, heard, and embraced.

They change topics when their child opens up about their feelings.

Some unconscious gaslighting involves parents abruptly changing topics while the child is expressing some concerns. This may be because parents are not sure how to handle the child’s confrontation. Not wanting the threaten the harmonious relationship and not knowing what else they can do, changing topics would seem to be a good choice. It could also be because parents feel that talking about something else could help with the situation and prevent their child from dwelling on negative emotions further. When such interactions happen, the child can feel completely ignored and wonder if his feelings are important. Nonetheless, not addressing them ultimately creates more distance within the relationship because it shows that there is little embrace and acceptance for one another.

Ignore what their child expresses about their feelings / reality.

Some parental gaslighting happens not by changing topics but by completely ignoring what the child has expressed. When the child expresses concern, the parents could stay silent throughout and not respond to what was brought to the table. It could be a similar case where the parents do not know how to respond or choose to stay silent to not confront emotions.

We have come to an awareness that when emotions are ignored, they do not go away. They get buried. And if children grow up in such an environment where their opinions and feelings are often met with silence, it would be easy for them to believe that they are not valued. As they grow up, they might choose to not express their authentic feelings and opinions because of this.

They justify their actions and refuse to see that it hurts their child.

Unintentional parental gaslighting also involves the justification of actions and refusal to step into the child’s shoes. It takes courage for one to admit their mistakes. For parents who want to preserve their good image, it would be even tougher for them to lower their egos and admit that they have hurt their children. Instead of admitting that they could be in the wrong, they might justify their actions to make themselves feel better. As more such interactions occur, whenever a child faces any concerns, they might start training themselves to see that the hurtful action was justified and that they have no reason to feel what they felt.

Dealing with Gaslighting Parents

It is unfortunate to be growing up in environments that could not validate our emotions and reality. However, remember that you are not alone in this struggle and the change is in our hands. We have the power to grow our capacity to validate, and the capacity to love better. We have the chance to show the generations that came before us new possibilities in relating to one another. To show them that they are in fact valid too, even if they grow up not even understanding what that means.

Now that there is an understanding of what unconscious parental gaslighting looks like, what are some ways you can handle it?

Practise Awareness

Start paying more attention to the kind of behaviours your parents exhibit and note the instances where gaslighting surfaces. This awareness is crucial to help you gain more control over your own reality. Since parental gaslighting sometimes could be unconscious, there is a chance that you are also receiving it unconsciously. Get in touch with your internal world and feelings towards certain behaviors. When some behavior from your parents makes you feel a certain way, before you disregard the feelings, catch yourself and give validation to them.

Trust Yourself

First of all, it is extremely important to cultivate a strong sense of self-trust. Self-trust can be difficult to cultivate if you grow up having your emotions and opinions often dismissed. This is because it can become habitual for you to disregard your own feelings and opinions.

The first step to cultivating this self-trust is to notice how much you disregard or do not value your own feelings or opinions, and ask yourself why you think this way. Understanding the reasons behind your tendency to dismiss yourself allows you to gradually break the cycle of negative thought patterns. Most of the time, valuing our feelings and opinions could simply start with just acknowledging their presence within you. Tell yourself things like: “I acknowledge that I feel this way about this, and it is valid to feel this way.” As you learn to value yourself, you also learn to trust yourself.

Dealing with gaslighting parents can cause you to experience neglect. At such times, it is important to practise self-care.

Practise Self-care

Self-care is extremely important to reconnect with yourself – it helps you to ground yourself and acknowledge who you are. As you get more involved in self-care activities, you start to build a better relationship with yourself and give more acceptance to what you feel and think.

Self-care activities mainly involve giving yourself the space to do what brings you more inner peace and joy. Some examples are:

  • journaling;
  • meditating;
  • being close to nature;
  • slowing down; giving yourself time to really relax;
  • getting a massage;
  • eating well;
  • exercising; and
  • moving your body in ways that make you feel more energised.

There are many ways to level up your self-care game. Most importantly, pick activities that you feel really nourished from and set time aside for them.

Understand and Set Boundaries 

If you grow up with gaslighting, boundaries would be one of the most difficult things to understand and set. To parents who do not understand boundaries, they might see boundaries as a threat to love and attachment. This is because they grow up having to give up their boundaries to preserve attachment. Yet, boundaries are not a threat to love and attachment. They are extremely essential for relationships to be safe and healthy. Each human being is born into this world with a body to call their own, and an internal world that only they can experience.

Once you understand what boundaries are and their importance, start reflecting about what are your boundaries. Ask yourself what feels acceptable and what feels unacceptable. Most importantly, remember to give validation to what feels unacceptable. If it feels unacceptable, it is unacceptable. This validation is extremely important because if you grow up with gaslighting, you might have the tendency to logicalise the unacceptable to be acceptable.

Communicate Boundaries Healthily and Confront When Necessary

This is the part that most of us fear. Communicating boundaries is difficult because it might be met with further invalidation or blaming. All of which would suggest to us that our relationship or attachment is threatened. But stand your ground, and believe in yourself. Know that as you set boundaries to take care of your well-being, you will inspire your parents to eventually do the same for themselves.

You can communicate boundaries healthily by first requesting your parents to be present and listen to something important that you need them to know. Then proceed on to share your feelings and boundaries. Take note to not blame them, but express it as it is. And share that you would feel more supported if they do not say or do certain things. If your parents are more receptive, you may attempt to explain what validation is and how you would like it from them.

Also, take note that when your boundaries are crossed, confront and reinforce them by reminding your parents about why it is not okay to do or say what they did.

Seek Healthy Validation from Trusted Support

If in any case, it is really difficult for you to receive validation from your parents, that is not the end of the day. Seek healthy validation from trusted friends or even online communities who share similar experiences as you. Healthy validation is important because it helps you stay grounded in your experiences despite receiving parental gaslighting. 

Online therapy can also help. A professional therapist’s expertise and nonjudgmental perspective may help you explore your thoughts and feelings, and learn new ways to cope with your situation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, growing up with gaslighting parents can be a difficult experience. For some, it continues to be an ongoing process. 

As gaslighting is not always noticeable in parent-child relationships, it may not be easy to spot them or take appropriate action. If you pick up signs of gaslighting in your interactions with your parents, it would be helpful to start with practising awareness of their behaviours and communicating your boundaries.

At any time you find the need for an emotional outlet, professional therapy may also be a form of trusted support as you navigate this journey of dealing with gaslighting parents.

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