Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Danger of Parents Gaslighting Their Children

They deserve respect, at every age.

Key points

  • Gaslighting and lying to children is particularly harmful.
  • Parental gaslighting can be devastating to children and the parent-child relationship.
  • Parents can gain respect from their children by taking responsibility for their errors and flaws.
 Mote Oo Education/Pixabay
Lying and gaslighting can destroy your relationship with your child.
Source: Mote Oo Education/Pixabay

Gaslighting is destructive to all relationships and hurtful to the person being targeted. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of being gaslighted and they can be devastated when they find that a parent is inflicting it upon them.

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where targets are urged to doubt their memories, beliefs, feelings, or sanity. It is often used to gain some sort of advantage over the target by weakening their clarity—and hence their judgment—so that they can be taken advantage of in some way.

Gaslighting causes people to not trust themselves and undermines their self-confidence and self-esteem. It attacks the most precious relationship anyone can have: their relationship with themselves.

When parents gaslight their children, it often begins with lying to the children and then covering up the lie, causing the child self-doubt and confusion. Children are particularly vulnerable to this cognitive manipulation because their brains, most notably their frontal lobes, are not yet fully developed. This makes them more easily confused than adults with fully-developed brains.

Children are also particularly vulnerable emotionally because they are dependent on their parents—not only for survival but also to guide them in their development of understanding right from wrong and real from unreal. Betrayal by a parent is accentuated by the fact that the parents are typically seen as protectors, supporters, and model citizens. It is a betrayal of all that came before: the lessons, joys, and sense of security derived from the now-shattered trust. It challenges the child’s sense of reality and safety.

Perry’s Story: The End of Innocence

Perry loved to be with his father, but he didn’t get many opportunities as his father worked seven days a week. At age six, his father moved out. Perry was afraid that he would never see him again. His father promised to call him every day. He did for a while.

Then the calls stopped. Perry asked his mother if he had missed the calls but his mother said that there were no calls. They had the following conversation:

Perry: Did Daddy call today?

Mom: No.

Perry: He said that he would call every day.

Mom: Your father says a lot of things.

Perry: Do you think he's mad at me?

Mom: You never know.

One day, the phone rang and Perry answered it himself. It was his father. He asked why he hadn't called—and his father told him that he had called every day but Perry's mother kept hanging up on him. Perry's mother had lied about his father’s calls and gaslighted him into believing that his father doesn't keep his word and that Perry might have done something to offend him.

Perry felt totally betrayed. He lost all ability to trust his parents—or any other authority figure, for that matter. He developed a significant anxiety disorder and required years of treatment in order to tolerate intimacy. His relationships with his parents remained damaged for the rest of their lives.

In the above example, Perry’s mother was using lying and gaslighting to alienate Perry from his father. Gaslighting is especially common in cases involving parental alienation, but it can be used in plenty of other situations as well. Below is an example of the use of gaslighting only for the purpose of not acknowledging an error or flaw.

Joy’s Story: The Clock that Lies

Joy loved when her grandfather came for a visit. Joy was used to waiting for her grandfather, because he was habitually late. Joy did not like the waiting and began complaining about his tardiness. She learned how to tell time and always had access to a clock.

On a particular Sunday, her grandfather showed up his usual 20 minutes late, but he did not want to hear about it again from Joy. Right before he pulled up to where she was waiting, he changed the time on his watch and in his car. When Joy confronted him about being late, he showed her his watch and the car clock. This didn’t make sense to her but she was swept away with seeing him and the gifts he had brought for her.

After her grandfather left, she began to think about her wrongly accusing him of being late. She remembered seeing on her clock that he was 15 minutes late and then his showing her that he was on time using his watch. She asked her parents if the clocks in the house were correct, which they affirmed. Then she realized that she had been gaslighted by her grandfather.

Joy confronted her grandfather about his deceit, and he thought it was funny. She did not pursue this incident with him, but she never trusted him again. She also questioned what he felt for her in light of his willingness to use dishonesty and betrayal casually with her. It also affected Joy’s ability to trust men in general.

Gaslighting children is very bad for them and can lead to long-lasting issues with trust and intimacy. Gaslighting your own children can cause severe damage to the relationship and may end the relationship. Children respect parents who are honest and take responsibility for their choices and actions.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today