5 Ways Toxic Families Rely on Gaslighting

Gaslighting protects toxic families and masks abusive behaviours.

Posted Oct 26, 2020

A "toxic family" is one in which healthy bonds between its members have been damaged and destroyed, and where the poisonous behaviours and beliefs that caused the destruction continue to circulate. Its members are tied together in a web of unhealthy obligations, enabling behaviours, and lies.

If you’re a member of a toxic family, chances are you won’t like yourself much when you’re around your siblings and parents. Being in the midst of the family might cause anxiety, depression, frustration, anger, and dread. 

Andriy Popov, 123rf
Source: Andriy Popov, 123rf

A healthy family has a strength which allows for the autonomy of its members. It’s a place where you can feel free to express opinions, to have disagreements, and to be respected for the choices you make. A healthy family can accommodate change and growth—both of individuals and of the family as a unit, with the embracement of children’s spouses and grandchildren.

The toxic family, on the other hand, is a highly unstable environment. When a group of people are held together as tenuously as the members of a toxic family, change and adaptation are threatening—as is the behaviour of individuals who become overly independent or who challenge the family narrative. 

In much the same way that narcissistic individuals use gaslighting behaviours as a protective and manipulative mechanism because they are unable to show their vulnerabilities or to allow their version of events to be called into question, the toxic family similarly uses gaslighting to preserve a fragile identity by using confusion and abuse to silence family members who threaten this identity. 

Gaslighting techniques include:

1. Justifying abusive behaviour towards in-laws.

Angela’s mother-in-law displayed a variety of emotionally abusive behaviours toward her, including criticising her constantly in relation to her domestic abilities and weight, talking about Angela’s husband’s ex-girlfriends in front of her, and disrespecting decisions about Angela and her husband’s son.

Angela would become deeply upset after a visit and raised the issue with her husband. “She’s just a bit daft—none of it’s personal,” he told Angela. “You’re just being a bit sensitive.” Angela’s mother-in-law’s behaviour was justified by her husband’s entire family on the basis of being “a bit daft and not meaning it” and, by calling Angela’s reaction into question, she was being effectively gaslighted by her husband’s family.

2. Disallowing change.

Whether it comes in the form of one family member challenging the way things are done in the family or calling into question the family’s values, anything which threatens the family status quo has the potential to destabilise this fragile institution. Gaslighting is an effective way of preventing change.

Marianne’s parents and siblings regarded her career choice, to go to art school, as a serious threat to their family’s way of doing things. “They ridiculed my decision and told me I wasn’t good enough and that I would earn less than the rest of them. I was forced to question my abilities and whether this was something I could do as part of this family.” 

Toxic families love to pigeon-hole individuals and will quickly bring you down to earth with stories of your childhood. If you show any signs of upset as these stories are constantly recycled, you’ll be accused of being “overly sensitive.”

3. Preserving the family narrative.

As an adult who had married into a very different type of family to his own, Daniel called into question some of the behaviours within his own family, including the way his father consistently bullied his mother. While his sisters were equally aware of their father’s abusive behaviour, both downplayed the impact of the bullying their mother had been subjected to (as did his mother).

Daniel was told he was overreacting; he was also told that specific incidences he recalled from childhood had never happened. The whole family rallied together in acceptance of his father’s behaviour in order to protect the “happy family” narrative, which would have been destroyed if Daniel’s father’s abusive behaviour was brought to light. 

4. Maintaining the ties.

Gaslighting can be used in a manipulative way to to keep drawing you into the family fold—no matter how unpleasant an experience that is for you. A toxic family may do this by chipping away at your confidence—telling you that other people don’t like you, for instance, or that you’ll never find a partner of your own. A parent may become deeply upset and use passive-aggressive techniques to show you that you’re the source of their pain because you haven’t visited recently.

After meeting a new boyfriend, every time Alyssa called her mother, her mother would say, “It’s nice to know you’ve still got time to call… I’m sure we’re not as interesting as his parents.” Alyssa told me that she still saw her mother as often as she had done before. But “she heaped more and more pressure on me to see her by making me feel guilty for the time I spent with my boyfriend and his family.”

5. Maintaining family divisions.

In contrast to families where people are respected as individuals, in toxic families, there are favourites, "golden children," and scapegoats. “Taking sides” is rife within toxic families where weak and abusive members, including narcissists, need others to defend them.

Gaslighting techniques can therefore be used to engage you as an ally against another sibling or parent. Tony told me, “My brother was always the ‘difficult’ one in the family, but I could see he’d changed after getting sober. Mum loved the fact that we always fought—and when I started sticking up for him, she’d counteract everything I said by reminding me of all the bad stuff he’d done in the past. When he acted well, she’d say he was just a manipulative liar. I ended up siding with mum against him because I couldn’t trust in my own judgement that he had actually changed.”

When you’ve grown up in a family that relies heavily on gaslighting, it can take many years to realise it. Sometimes people only become aware that this is happening when they want to create change in their lives or meet a new partner and become involved in a new family. Seeing how a healthy family operates can be a sharp reality check.

Simply recognising that you cannot be accepted for who you are when you’re with your family and that any attempt to change your behaviours or question family events and behaviours is met with denial, ridicule, or passive-aggressiveness are strong indications that you’re being subjected to gaslighting behaviours. Starting from that point of awareness, you can begin to work on strengthening your boundaries around your family—from how much time you spend with them to not allowing yourself to be drawn into unhealthy alliances against family members.

You can also become aware that you have ownership of your memories and experiences, no matter how much these are stepped on by other family members. Toxic families are notoriously difficult to change—particularly because if you stop supporting an abusive member or abusive behaviours, there will often be someone else ready to pick up the slack. 

If you need help in tackling gaslighting in the toxic family, please seek out a suitably qualified therapist.