Gaslighting Parents and Other Family Members

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation used by someone to gain power and control over someone else in a relationship.

It is used to make a person doubt his or her judgment or to think that he or she is going crazy so that the person must rely on the gaslighter to determine what’s real and what’s not.

The parent-child relationship is inherently designed with an imbalance in power. As children tend to trust their parents, they are more likely to accept gaslighting behaviors as the truth of a situation.

Since the parent is the authority, having the most control, it might seem that this person wouldn’t need to use gaslighting as a way to be in power. However, there are a few reasons why a parent might use gaslighting in the relationship with his or her child.

If the parent has narcissistic tendencies or has another type of controlling personality disorder, he or she will use gaslighting as a way to keep that power.

This person will often feel like he or she is losing control of a situation when things aren’t going the way that this individual wants, so the parent will use manipulation as a way to keep the child in line. When a parent has a troubled personality, gaslighting is typically planned and intentional.

However, it’s important to note that some gaslighting that is done by a parent isn’t always intentionally abusive. If the parent is uneducated or hasn’t developed sufficient parenting skills, this person may use gaslighting techniques just to maintain his or her authority.

The individual may have learned this behavior from his or her parents. Even if the parent feels this is wrong, he or she hasn’t learned another way to deal with situations and will fall back on the learned behavior.

Another unintentional use of gaslighting may occur when a parent tries to maintain some sense of order within the household or feels the need to prove his or her authority over the child. If the child asks for a snack, the parent may refuse by stating how the child isn’t hungry because he or she just ate.

This completely dismisses the child’s perception of hunger. Alternately, the parent may claim that there are no snacks available even if there are, promptly dismissing the perceived needs of the child.

Finally, a parent may unintentionally gaslight the child because this person feels that he or she has to make a quick decision on a matter. The parent will then decide without listening to the child’s reasoning, effectively invalidating the child’s thoughts or feelings on a subject.

While unintentional gaslighting may seem like a quick and easy way for a parent to maintain authority, the effects on the child are still the same as if done intentionally.

Although gaslighting techniques are more frequently used by parents in regards to the children, this type of manipulation may also be used by other family members as a way to gain control or have influence over another person in the family.

For example, this can occur if one sibling feels the need to have control over a brother or a sister. Sometimes this happens as an extension of parental behavior if one of the parents uses gaslighting on the children.

It could be a way for a sibling who feels powerless to gain some sense of control. However, it is often a signal that the sibling is developing or has an undiagnosed personality disorder.

While this can occur with siblings due to the family dynamic, it can happen with other close family members as well. If aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, or grandparents are close, gaslighting can be used as a way to maintain authority or have control over another person within the family.

Additionally, children may unintentionally use gaslighting to get what they want or to have some type of control over a parent.

Whether a child who’s wondering if a parent or family member is gaslighting him or her or a parent who’s concerned that he or she might be gaslighting his or her child, here are some signs to watch out for. The term “parent” can be replaced with any other family member.

1 – Shutting down conversations

Any conversation or discussion that isn’t going the way the parent wants will be promptly shut down. The parent’s decision will be final. This is often done by the parent saying, “Because I’m the parent; that’s why.”

He or she may also say things like, “What I say goes” or “Because I said so.” While these phrases are commonly used by many parents, if they’re used regularly to prevent the child from expressing his or her point of view, this is gaslighting. This is the ultimate power move as it is a way for the parent to maintain absolute power and control.

Shutting down conversations also shows the child that his or her opinions don’t matter. The child’s emotions become irrelevant, making the child feel that he or she is not valued or an important part of the family.

He or she will feel that his or her thoughts or feelings don’t matter to the parent, and over time, the child will feel the same way, often feeling ashamed of thoughts and emotions he or she may have.

2 – Knowing the child

In this method of gaslighting, a parent allegedly knows the child better than he or she knows himself or herself. This person knows what the child likes, even if he or she truly doesn’t.

Commonly used at meal time, the parent may tell the child that he or she likes a certain prepared food item simply because the child had eaten it.

For one thing, a child may eat what’s put on his or her plate if the parent has already established rules about meals. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the child likes the food in question.

Additionally, because the taste is subjective, there is no way that any other person, even a parent, can truly know what a child likes without being told specifically.

As a form of gaslighting, it makes the adult the expert. It not only invalidates a child’s capabilities to make a decision, but it also creates doubt in the child about his or her ability to trust his or her own thoughts and desires.

3 – Minimizing the child’s emotional responses

Disappointment and frustration are common during childhood. Because children have not yet developed the reasoning and speaking skills necessary to express these feelings by talking them out, they are likely to cry as an emotional outlet.

A gaslighting parent may tell his or her child, “That’s no reason to cry” or even “You shouldn’t cry.”

Children and adults cannot always control their emotional response to an event. What they feel, or how these feelings are expressed, shouldn’t have a value judgment placed on them.

This makes the child feel like he or she is wrong for feeling a certain way or for expressing emotions in a way that is considered to be wrong by the parent. It leads to confusion as the child tries to deal with complex emotions in a way that is not natural.

Another way a parent may gaslight a child by minimizing emotional responses to an event is to shame the child by mocking him or her. The parent will mimic the child’s behavior, often going over the top in the performance with exaggerated crying or throwing a fit.

The parent will clarify that he or she is copying the child’s behavior. While the parent may claim that he or she just wants the child to see how ridiculous it looks, again, this invalidates the child’s real emotional response, making the child think that his or her feelings are not valued or that the feelings are wrong.

The child will then begin to question how he or she should respond to difficult circumstances that make him or her feel bad.

4 – Placing emphasis on the child’s imagination

Gaslighters tend to work by making the victim think that he or she is crazy or heading in that direction. For a parent, it might not be this extreme, but the parent may chalk things up to the child’s overactive imagination.

If a child has an experience that doesn’t make sense to the parent, makes the parent look bad, or goes against the way the parent believes things should be, he or she may claim that the child has quite the imagination or may tell the child, “You’re always imagining things.”

While a parent might say this to reassure a child who had a bad experience, it still negates the child’s view on reality. No matter the reason behind it, blaming a child’s imagination makes him or her wonder what’s real and what isn’t. This is a tactic a gaslighter uses to make the victim depend on him or her for what the truth of a situation is.

When a child can no longer tell what is real and imaginary on his or her own, that child must then depend on whatever the gaslighting parent tells them is fact, which is not always the truth.

5 – Discrediting memories

When a child brings up an event or a conversation that puts the parent in a bad light, the parent may blame the child’s memory of the specific occurrence.

The parent may say something like, “That’s not the way it happened” or “You know I didn’t say that.” Again, this makes the child question his or her ability to know what is real or what is not, so he or she must always turn to the parent for everything.

Another way that a parent may discredit a child’s memory of a situation is by denying it ever happened in the first place. This often occurs if the parent hurts the child in some way.

If the child confronts the parent on the behavior, the parent will deny avoiding taking responsibility for the behavior. Because a child is supposed to be able to trust the parent, he or she will begin to lose trust in himself or herself.

6 – Isolating the child

A gaslighting parent may feel like he or she is losing control if the child has an accomplishment or exerts some type of independence from that parent.

Because the parent has had control over the child for so long, it can be hard for that person to let go. The parent may attempt to cut off the child’s access to independence by using gaslighting to keep the child dependent upon him or her.

For example, if the child is spending a lot of time with a friend, the parent might express some type of concern over the legitimacy of the friendship, claiming that the friend only feels sorry for the child.

Alternately, the parent might point out some flaws that the friend has as a way of creating doubt in the child if he or she should continue with that friendship.

Because the child is not under direct parental control if he or she is over at the friend’s house regularly, the parent might worry that the child will no longer be as controllable as before or that the child will see the way the parent treats him or her is not typical behavior for a parent.

Perhaps the child is about to graduate high school and is considering college. While most adults understand that this is a natural progression to adulthood and independence, the gaslighting parent does not want to lose that power.

He or she may try to convince the child that college isn’t important or that the child should take a year or two off from school to work close to home to get a taste of life before deciding on a college.

This gives the parent more time to influence the child, which may last well into adulthood.

As mentioned, it might not always be the parent exerting control over the child. Gaslighting can be used by any family member who has a close personal relationship with the child.

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