- Adult children who gaslight their parents may lack the skills to have calm, constructive conversations.
- When confronted with gaslighting, parents who take the high road stay out of the ruts of fruitless power struggles.
- Being a voice of reason promotes adult children to eventually develop their own skills to calm down and effectively communciate.
When your adult child gaslights you, it is common to feel shocked, hurt, and stuck. As a coach for parents of struggling adult children, I hear many stories of gaslighting based in grossly distorted realities. When adult children resort to gaslighting, they do so because they lack the ability to have calm, constructive conversations with their parents.
Let's be clear: I'm not saying that all parents are perfect. As parents, we may say mean or manipulative things. We may give our kids mixed messages in which we contradict ourselves. While most parents have their children's best interests at heart and love their kids unconditionally, they often may not understand their kids in ways that would be helpful. While we as parents usually try our best, we have all fallen prey to these struggles, for sure.
We need to be empathetic to the pain of our adult children and be mindful of ways we could have done better as parents. If you have emotionally hurt your child it is time to own it and apologize. At the same time, please take off that "kick me" sign. In other words, parental shortcomings do not justify adult children being manipulative, emotionally abusive (such as screaming obscenities), or using nasty gaslighting tactics.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which someone makes another person doubt their perceptions, experiences, memories, or understanding of events. Gaslighting can truly create emotional upheaval and ignite negative energy. It is especially harmful when it comes from your adult child. After all, whatever your child is like now at this mature age, you likely have memories of past tender moments, and times of fewer problems and conflicts.
So how do you deal with your adult child gaslighting you? First, you need to recognize gaslighting behaviors, and respond accordingly. Following are five common gaslighting phrases, along with strategies for how to handle them. As you will see, learning to be calm, firm, and noncontrolling, as described in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, will help you avoid those drama-laden, fruitless power struggles.
5 Common Gaslighting Tactics of Struggling Adult Children
1. “What? You're crazy! That’s not what happened.” Adult children who gaslight like to find ways to control and distort the narrative of a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable. They will cling rigidly to their concocted version of reframed events and try whatever they can to convince you that you’re wrong.
How to respond: It helps to be calm, firm, and rational in this situation. You could say: "I hear that's how you see it; I see it differently. I know what I saw, and I’m clear about what happened." Depending on the context of the conflict, and the adult child's underlying motives, you can even follow up with, "It’s okay that we see things differently and I think doing so in a mutually respectful way will benefit both of us.”
2. “You're way too sensitive.” Such a phrase tries to negate your feelings, thus minimizing the offending behaviors of the adult child. This is a way adult children try to invalidate a parent and reduce what are most likely genuine feelings of hurt into alleged overreactions. One of my coaching clients recently had their adult daughter screaming at her to take anxiety medication for allegedly being too high-strung; yet, ironically, it was the adult daughter who was incapable of speaking calmly.
How to respond: Carry yourself with grace and dignity. You can say, "Yes, I have some strong emotions over this situation. It is part of me being human. What do you suggest so that I can feel safe to express my concerns and emotions in a way that works for you?"
3. “It is all your fault that my life is ruined!” This is a classic blame-shifting maneuver that falls under gaslighting as well. Parents are hardwired to often unfairly blame themselves for their adult children's struggles. Sadly, gaslit parents may start to believe that their adult child's struggles are all their fault and eventually overly shoulder the blame for most of their problems. Yet, if we look around at many other families, we realize that life is not so simple as being able to blame any one party for everything.
For a reality check, consider the words of the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, who said the following [shortened here for brevity] to his adult son, who was struggling and trying to pin it all on Rocky:
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. . . .But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not point fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody!. . . . You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, ya ain’t gonna have a life.
How to respond: Try saying, ‘I hope we can both work to take responsibility to reduce blaming each other." If you respond in this way, you convey to your adult child that you’re both human and make mistakes, which is what leads to shared learning and growing.
4. “You deserve for me to treat you like crap, it's the only way to get your attention." (Or related, "You make me have to scream at you.") This is a very manipulative and controlling tactic by adult children designed to make parents feel like they are in the wrong.
How to respond: You can say. "It's good that you want to connect. While you may think your screaming will get me to hear you, I think you owe it to yourself to stop being emotionally abusive to me. Wouldn't it be better for you to communicate in a calm, constructive manner instead of escalating your emotions?"
5. “You always make a big deal out of nothing!” This phrase invalidates the parent, conveying that whatever is important to them is, in fact, not important at all. Vulnerable parents end up doubting their feelings.
How to respond: The main goal by the adult child here is to communicate that your emotional reaction is invalid. So, you can say, “My feelings are valid and I would appreciate it if you would respect my emotions even if you disagree with me having them.’”
American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology: Gaslight. https://dictionary.apa.org/gaslight Accessed Novermber 20, 2022.
Bernstein, J. 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed), Perseus Books, New York, NY, 2015.
Sweet, Paige L. “The Sociology of Gaslighting” in American Sociological Review, 2019; Vol. 84(5): 851-875. https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/oct19asrfeat… September 28, 2021.