Parent-child relationships tend to be complex in general. Distinguishing whether the issues go beyond normal familial bickering and into unhealthy, toxic territory can be difficult. Particularly in the case of gaslighting, which is a confusing and manipulative form of emotional abuse, recognizing the problem takes a lot of awareness. Here are signs of gaslighting parents and examples of common phrases they might use, plus steps toward healing you can take.
5 signs of gaslighting from a parent:
The parent ignores a child's subjective experience.
One sign of gaslighting is when a parent denies their child's lived experiences. "An individual may describe an experience from the past where they felt socially isolated by friends or scared of a parent's reaction, and the parent's response is a denial of the event," psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli, L.P., explains.
Even if the parent does remember the moment differently, Spinelli says this type of gaslighting creates an invalidation of the person's feelings, which can be harmful. If a parent is constantly questioning the reality of their child, that's a sign of gaslighting, she says.
The parent plays the victim.
Playing the victim is a common tendency of covert narcissists, psychopaths, and gaslighters. In a parent-child relationship, Spinelli says gaslighting parents may refuse to own their role in a problem and act as if they're always the one who was wronged.
The parent makes their child feel worse about themselves.
Rather than being emotionally supportive, gaslighting parents will make their child feel worse about whatever difficult situation they're in—whether it's a mistake, a failure, or a day-to-day stressor. Spinelli says this behavior indicates gaslighting.
The parent is overly controlling.
Another sign of gaslighting, according to certified therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is "when a parent uses an authoritarian style of parenting and evaluates their son/daughter through the lens of obedience." In other words, the parent controls what their child should like, dislike, value, and believe.
"This creates a child who is indecisive or is challenged by understanding their own feelings, opinions, and wants or needs," Spinelli adds.
The parent is enmeshed with their child.
When a parent is enmeshed (aka too close) with their child, they are more focused on befriending the child than being a parent to them. Muñoz says they will attempt to shield the child from difficult emotions, like sadness, disappointment, and loneliness, leaving the kid unable to experience or cope with those natural emotions.
Here are some common gaslighting phrases parents may use, according to Spinelli:
- You are crazy.
- You are making a big deal out of nothing.
- You are so sensitive.
- I criticize you because I love you.
- I am not arguing, I am discussing this with you.
- You should have known ___.
- You are being too emotional.
- Stop being dramatic.
Here are a few more scenarios and examples of gaslighting parents, according to Muñoz:
The parent puts words into their child's mouth about how they're feeling:
- You're not cold.
- You're hungry.
- You're tired; go to sleep.
- You're not upset about what that kid said (or did); you're just grouchy.
The parent "shoulds" on their child:
- You should have taken out the garbage.
- You should have done your homework.
- You should have put on your socks.
- You should have listened to your mother.
The parent tells a child "who they are" or makes blanket statements about their character:
- You're a good kid.
- You're a bad kid.
- You're the kind of kid who shares their toys.
- You're a selfish kid.
- You're a good student.
- You're a bad student.
While some of these statements can seem harmless at first glance, Muñoz says that over time evaluating a child's character—whether negative or positive—can be damaging. "Compliments can be a form of gaslighting when they negate or deny a child's experience of a situation, or of themselves, or when they're a form of manipulation," she explains.
Why do people gaslight?
There are many reasons a parent may gaslight their child. In many cases, the behavior is a response to their own upbringing. If a parent was modeled gaslighting by their own mom or dad, Spinelli says they may not be aware of how manipulative or damaging their actions are.
Other parents (namely, the enmeshed kind) may just be overwhelmed and project their own inner wounds and past experiences onto their children. "This leaves their child feeling misunderstood, lonely, disconnected, and often angry," Muñoz explains. "It may also erode a child's sense of self/self-confidence."
Those who tend to push their views onto a child, aka authoritarians, gaslight out of an attempt to maintain control, Muñoz adds. "This may have been how they were raised, or it may be that they have a low tolerance for anxiety."
Narcissism, emotional immaturity, a need for attention, and deep-rooted shame, are all other potential root causes of gaslighting, Spinelli states.
How to deal with gaslighting:
Become aware of the issue.
"The first step is being able to recognize and understand that you are being gaslighted by the parent," Spinelli says. Working with a therapist and educating yourself on the signs of gaslighting can be really helpful for this step.
Check in on the facts.
Since many parents who gaslight tend to dismiss or invalidate their kids' stories, Spinelli recommends giving yourself a reality check. "Go back to the facts and data to remind yourself of what is real and not a distorted reality of the gaslighting parent," she says. "You can also check in with someone you trust who has witnessed and validated your experience."
Identifying your own needs—whether it's stepping away from the relationship or setting firm expectations—can help preserve your emotional energy. "Know that if the relationship is too toxic, you can choose to distance yourself accordingly," she says. "Your mental health is a priority."
The bottom line.
Experiencing gaslighting in any relationship is damaging, but the effects can be even more formative when coming from a parent. Being aware of the issue, and accepting that it's never your fault, is the first step in healing. Seeking support from trusted friends, family members, and professionals can also help.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.