- When parents gaslight their children, it creates a negative impact that can last a lifetime.
- Parents who invalidate what their children think and feel create a breeding ground for anxiety, depression, addiction, and personality disorders.
- The key to shielding oneself from a parent's gaslighting tactics is to see the parent as a limited person.
Jenna, age 39, had tears streaming down her face when describing how invalidated she felt after speaking to her mother. She said, "My mother makes these upsetting sarcastic comments and then tells me she doesn't mean them. But, afterward, I feel so hurt every time I speak with her." Similarly, Juan, another client, described feeling rage when his parents negatively compared him to his siblings. He described his parents as "scarily subtle" in that they would imply these hurtful, negative comparisons and then deny them.
Gaslighting Parents In Action
A gaslighting parent exhibits a pattern of disputing or denying a child’s opinions and feelings. Parental gaslighting is an emotionally abusive way of communicating. Gaslighting parents are those who undermine their child’s sense of reality and emotional stability. Toxic, gaslighting parents often deny or dispute their children's experiences. This pattern of behavior usually extends well into the adult years.
In my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, I discuss how when parents make veiled threats, minimize their children's feelings, and otherwise invalidate what their children think and feel, they create a fertile breeding ground for anxiety, depression, addictive behaviors, and personality disorders.
Below, I have grouped parental gaslighting into three main types: label slinging, nagging with negativity, and swimming in "Denial River."
Label slinging as a form of gaslighting occurs when parents share their distorted, harmful psychological interpretations with their adult children. Even if there are underlying kernels of truth, these all-or-nothing, label-laden types of statements are highly damaging:
- You have always been quite self-absorbed.
- I can tell you that even your siblings struggle to make sense of how oblivious you are to the needs of others.
- You know we love you, but you’ve always been selfish.
- You are just so entitled and ungrateful.
- That's your disability speaking, surely you don't mean what you are saying.
- C'mon, you make me out to sound like I was awful. Poor baby. You survived, after all, didn’t you?
Nagging With Negativity
Parents who try to ensnare their children in negativity make comments that are pessimistic and discouraging.
- You often get upset because you don’t do well with conflicts.
- Trust me, you were really hard to raise. I tried everything to make your life easier but you wouldn't let me help you.
- How are you going to raise a child when you can barely take care of yourself?
- Maybe you shouldn't take that job because I don't want you to feel disappointed if you aren't successful at it.
Swimming in Denial
It can truly feel maddening, at any age, when parents deny their children's emotions. Below are some examples of what I refer to as parents who swim in Denial River:
- That never even happened. What are you talking about?
- Don't you think you're exaggerating things about feeling abandoned by me?
- You just can't accept that I'm not this perfect parent. How about you stop and think of all I have done for you?
- All I can say is that it must be you because everybody tells me that I'm a great parent.
These examples are all illustrative. They may not be what you specifically hear. That said, your parent may say things consistent with one or all three themes of gaslighting described above.
Let's now take a look at how you can manage your parents' gaslighting comments. The approach described below is surprisingly easy to use and helpful. It will work for all three types of gaslighting.
Breaking Free by Seeing Your Parents' Limitations
You don't have control over what comes out of your parents' mouths. It may help to consider that based on the dysfunction they may have grown up with, they may not have much control over what they say either. In other words, they have been alive for many years, had their own struggles, and their well-formed personalities likely have them pretty set in their ways.
Yet, you can very much control how much what they say will affect you. When your parent makes a hurtful comment, always remember that you are the one in charge of the degree to which it affects you.
The way to manage their gaslighting comes down to managing your expectations. I am not suggesting that you make excuses if your parent is being obnoxious, mean, or insensitive. What I am suggesting, though, is to learn to take their power away by empowering yourself with a really good explanation for why your parents are gaslighting you: They are limited people.
Put an "L" on Their Foreheads
Maybe your parents are limited because of the pain of their own childhoods. Perhaps your gaslighting parents have their own emotional health issues that lead them to try to manipulate and control you. Whatever the underlying cause of your parents' struggles, the more you switch lanes from the offended adult child to the empowered, insightful adult child, the less vulnerable you will be to your parents' gaslighting tactics.
A visualization strategy that my clients find helpful is to picture an "L" on their parents' foreheads. This "L" does not stand for "Loser," but rather, "Limited." That's right: Seeing your parents as limited will help you not take their comments or actions so personally. The more you see your parents as having limitations, the more you can empathize with their struggles. Please hear that your empathy, while being a gift to your parents, is even more a gift to yourself. This is because seeing your parents' limitations and having empathy for them will free you from emotional pain when they gaslight you. Consider this strategy as your new shield of armor and try it out.
Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, DaCapo Publishing, New York, NY.
Collins, S. (2022). Gaslighting in Families: Signs of Gaslighting Parents, https://www.psycom.net/gaslighting-parents-families, accessed on November 27, 2022.
Stark, C. A. (2019). Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression, The Monist, Volume 102, Issue 2, Pages 221–235, https://doi.org/10.1093/monist/onz007
Li, P. (2022) Gaslighting Parents – 37 Examples, Signs & Fightbacks, MS, MBA, https://www.parentingforbrain.com/gaslighting-parents/#:~:text=A%20gasl…., Accessed November 27, 2022
Sweet PL. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. Am Sociol Rev. :851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843