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How Parents Can Gaslight Their Children

Invalidating replies can threaten kids' confidence and trust.

Key points

  • Parents’ gaslighting their children is so common that it can be understood as universal and ubiquitous.
  • What puts gaslighting in the bracket of emotional abuse is it's regrettable lack of empathy and understanding.
  • Gaslighting seriously weakens the secure bond a child so desperately needs to establish with their parents.
  • To be fair, children can ask their parents questions at the worst possible, least convenient times.

What the above title suggests is that parents’ gaslighting their children is so common that—non-hyperbolically—it can be understood as universal and ubiquitous. Unable or unwilling to offer their progeny the reassurance they require to mitigate distressful emotions, they glibly offer them untruths or half-truths.

Although their intentions aren’t generally malignant, the messages they convey can nonetheless seriously damage a child’s evolving sense of self.

What places gaslighting in the woeful category of emotional abuse is its lack of empathy, sensitivity, and compassion. Failing to confirm the child’s reality as it differs from their own represents an unconscious attempt to exert dominance over their child’s thoughts and feelings.

Overriding their child’s anxiety-laden perceptions, beliefs, and doubts vetoes the child’s limited but authentically lived experience.

Given their mandatory dependency, children are especially vulnerable to gaslighting. They haven’t yet formed a clear sense of identity, so they’re susceptible to having to deny or distort their reality to bring it into conformance with what their parents “authoritatively” say to them.

However invalidating their parents’ response may feel, naturally assuming their parents know far more than they do, they’ll still be apt to question the legitimacy, or “rightness,” of their personal experience.

And if all too often they’re subject to their parents’ dismissive messaging, to feel more securely connected to them, they’ll end up gaslighting themselves.

If, for example, children are told they’re too sensitive, they’ll take responsibility for this adverse parental evaluation, accepting on faith what hadn’t before felt true to them.

Consequently, an innocent juvenile is likely to learn to:

  • Propagate a distrust both of themselves and others, creating relational confusion, distance, and discord
  • Say “I’m sorry” when they have nothing to be sorry about
  • Lack confidence and conviction in their ideas
  • Does not abide by their intuition
  • Be saddled with a bothersome sense that they must be wrong (i.e., develop a negative self-bias)
  • Incessantly try to prove themselves
  • Labor to provide irrefutable facts to justify their viewpoint
  • Regularly feel misapprehended and thereby isolated from others.

So, as now likely an adult yourself, possibly with children of your own—and, too, having earlier experienced being gaslit by your parents—ask yourself whether you’ve ever:

  • Been too busy or preoccupied to pay sufficient, respectful attention to what your child was communicating to you
  • Denied the import of their words
  • Responded flippantly—that is, not taken seriously, or made light of, their questions or concerns
  • Doubled down when they were bold enough to take exception to what you’d shared with them, emphatically repeating what, indeed, you mostly fabricated
  • Told them they couldn’t possibly have felt what they told you they did (like feeling hate toward a sibling)
  • Called them derogatory names when you finally ran out of patience with them (e.g., “That’s just dumb” or “If that’s the way you think, you’ll never amount to anything”)
  • Not approved of their doing something differently from you, even though you sensed it would lead to the same result
  • Reneged on a promise, maybe even disavowing that you ever made it
  • Discounted or showed no appreciation for things they’d done that helped you or your family (as in, “That’s no more than what we expect of you”).

To be fair, there are many occasions when a child inopportunely disrupts what a parent needs to stay focused on, approaching them at the worst possible time. And in these instances, it’s just much more convenient to ignore or respond hastily to them—not really taking in what they have beseeched you to address.

Still, abrupt or cursory replies tend to be erroneous or oversimplified—as well as dismissive and disrespectful—even belittling. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more time-consuming and challenging to conscientiously and empathically be there for them when what they’re requesting is a thoughtful, measured response.

Here are just a few gaslighting remarks that people make, which in denigrating the other’s experience, can be psychologically harmful.

Among those that writers frequently mention are:

You need help.

You’re the one who is lying [projection!].

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Why are you so defensive all the time?

I didn’t mean it like that, obviously.

You’re always twisting things.

You sound so crazy.

I was just joking.

Calm down.

Such comments (and they’re well-nigh infinite) are—particularly with children—felt as put-downs, weakening whatever attachment bond the child so much needs to build or strengthen.

Even more striking is the lamentable absence of empathy, which can hardly help but reinforce a child’s insecurity and relational loneliness.

For more, see Part 2 of this post.

© 2024 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

Facebok image: fizkes/Shutterstock


[No last name given], Cheryl. (2022, Sept 29). Gaslighting your child’s worries and fears is harmful.

Li, P. (2023,Oct 28). Emotion dismissing parent—Why common parenting practice is harmful to kids.

Steenbergen, R. (2018 ). The gaslighting effect: A revealing look at psychological manipulation and narcissistic abuse. eBook, ISBN 9781093297843

Tanasugam, A. (2022, Jul 27). How childhood invalidation affects adult well-being.

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