The Enchanted Mirror: Reflections on Gaslighting in Parenting

"You can't understand what it's like to be a real parent unless you've given birth."

"You must enjoy being a martyr to take care of someone else's problems."

"Maybe if you were stricter, your child wouldn't have these problems."

"You must have done something to cause your child's mental health problems."

"Are you sure you're not just projecting your own anxiety (depression, etc) onto your child?"

"You should be grateful you were able to adopt; you have no right to complain."

"You must be doing something wrong if the child keeps acting out."

"Have you tried disciplining your child properly? That should fix the behavior."

"You're making a big deal out of nothing"

"ADHD is just an excuse for lazy parenting."

"It's just bad parenting. If you were better at this, your child wouldn't have these problems."

"Your child will never be able to cope with life if you continue this way."

Reading those quotes, do any of them resonate with you?   

If you’re raising a child with a mental health condition, pretty sure you’ve heard these, and we aren’t going to lie they hurt.   These statements are unhealthy, not helpful, and unproductive. 

These statements fall under the umbrella of gaslighting.  

What is gaslighting you ask?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse in which one person, often a perpetrator or abuser, seeks to undermine and distort another person’s perception of reality, memory, and sanity. The term “gaslighting” originates from a 1938 play called “Gas Light,” in which a husband tries to drive his wife insane by making her doubt her perceptions through subtle and intentional manipulations. In a gaslighting scenario, the perpetrator uses various tactics to make the victim question their own thoughts, feelings, and judgments. This can be done in personal relationships, workplace settings, or other social interactions. The ultimate goal is to exert control and power over the victim by causing them to doubt their sanity and sense of reality. So while most situations today are not that extreme, it’s woven into so many interpersonal relationships that we don’t even notice it.

Some common gaslighting tactics include:

  • Denial: The gaslighter denies that certain events or conversations ever took place, making the victim doubt their memory.
  • Misdirection: The gaslighter changes the subject or redirects the conversation whenever the victim brings up concerns or doubts.
  • Contradiction: The gaslighter contradicts the victim’s experiences or feelings, creating confusion and self-doubt.
  • Minimization: The gaslighter downplays the significance of the victim’s emotions or experiences, making them feel as if their concerns are unimportant or unwarranted.
  • Blaming: The gaslighter shifts the blame onto the victim, making them believe they are the cause of the problems or conflicts.
  • Exaggeration: The gaslighter may blow small mistakes or issues out of proportion, making the victim feel overly guilty or responsible.
  • Withholding information: The gaslighter may withhold important information to keep the victim in the dark and maintain control.
  • Projection: The gaslighter accuses the victim of the very behaviors they themselves exhibit, deflecting attention away from their actions.
  • Emotional manipulation: The gaslighter uses emotional tactics to destabilize the victim, such as guilt-tripping, stonewalling, or silent treatment.
  • Isolation: The gaslighter may isolate the victim from friends, family, or support networks to increase their dependence and vulnerability.

Over time, gaslighting can have severe consequences on the victim’s mental and emotional well-being, leading to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and a loss of confidence in one’s judgment. It can be especially damaging in intimate relationships and family dynamics, where trust and support are crucial.

Recognizing gaslighting is essential to protect oneself from its harmful effects.  It’s recommended that when you recognize that it’s occurring, you can make a choice, in the moment not to allow those statements to take rent in your head.  You can identify them in the moment, of being unhealthy, and let them go.  We like to say those negative statements are gremlins.  Identify them as gremlins and evict them.

So why do we bring this up in a blog post about parenting?   

We see it all-the-time. 

As mentioned above, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and when it occurs in the context of parenting a child with mental health challenges or behaviors, it can be especially harmful. It’s harmful to the parents’ support system to engage in this behavior. It’s harmful for parents to engage in this behavior with their children. it’s crucial for families experiencing this to recognize the patterns and seek support. 

Here are some examples of where parents might see this:

  • Downplaying concerns:  Gaslighters may dismiss the parent’s worries about their child’s mental health by saying things like, “All kids go through phases; it’s nothing to worry about.” This minimizes the parent’s valid concerns, making them question whether they are overreacting.
  • Invalidating emotions: Family and friends might say, “You’re always so sensitive about everything” or “You need to toughen up.” By invalidating the parent’s emotions, gaslighters undermine their ability to trust their instincts and emotions when it comes to their child’s needs.
  • Undermining parental authority: Gaslighters may intervene in the parent’s disciplinary measures, saying, “You’re too strict; let the child have some freedom.” This can make the parent doubt their ability to set boundaries and maintain authority.
  • Shifting blame: Gaslighters might say, “Your parenting must be the problem if the child is acting this way.” This places blame on the parent and creates self-doubt, even though the child’s challenges may result from factors beyond the parent’s control.
  • Minimizing the child’s struggles: Gaslighters may comment, “All kids have their quirks” or “They’re just seeking attention.” This can lead the parent to question whether their child’s issues are genuinely significant or just normal phases.
  • Discrediting professional advice: Gaslighters might say, “You don’t need a therapist; they’ll grow out of it.” This discourages the parent from seeking professional help and leaves them feeling isolated in managing their child’s challenges.
  • Comparisons to other children: Family and friends might say, “Look at how well-behaved their child is in comparison.” This comparison triggers feelings of inadequacy and incompetence in the parent, as they question their ability to care for their child effectively.
  • Questioning the diagnosis: Gaslighters may assert, “Are you sure the child has a real condition?” This makes the parent doubt the accuracy of professional assessments and recommendations, delaying appropriate interventions.
  • Inconsistent support: People close to the parent may offer help initially but then become unavailable when needed. This inconsistent support leaves the parent feeling uncertain and hesitant to seek assistance when necessary.
  • Gaslighting the child directly: Some individuals may manipulate the child’s perception, saying things like, “Your parent doesn’t really understand you.” This undermines the parent-child bond and exacerbates the child’s challenges.
  • Suggesting the parent is too sensitive: Gaslighters might say, “You’re taking everything too seriously.” This tactic aims to make the parent feel guilty for expressing their emotions and seeking support.
  • Undermining the parent’s knowledge: Gaslighters may challenge the parent’s understanding of their child’s condition, saying, “You don’t really know what’s best for them.” This erodes the parent’s confidence in making informed decisions.
  • Making the parent feel guilty: Gaslighters may guilt-trip the parent for prioritizing self-care or seeking help, saying, “You’re neglecting your child by focusing on yourself.” This hinders the parent’s ability to care for their child effectively.
  • Overemphasizing the child’s improvements: Family and friends might highlight any positive changes in the child’s behavior but ignore ongoing struggles, leading the parent to question whether their concerns are valid or if they are exaggerating the issues.
  • Isolating the parent: Gaslighters may create an environment where the parent feels alone and unsupported, making it difficult for them to seek validation or guidance from others who understand their situation. This isolation can intensify feelings of helplessness and despair.

It’s crucial for parents & caregivers to recognize these gaslighting behaviors and find support in developing positive messages and coping strategies.  It’s essential to recognize that parenting a child with a mental health diagnosis comes with unique challenges, and parents may naturally be more protective or have different parenting strategies due to their child’s specific needs. While it’s essential to strike a balance between support and independence, gaslighting comments that dismiss the validity of caregiver concerns can be harmful.  It’s important that your support system validates your experiences, continues to provide you with healthy psychoeducation, and encourages you to continue asking and accepting help.  We need to empower each other to navigate the challenges of raising a child with a mental health diagnosis in a healthy way. Please remember that the more we shed light on this issue, the better equipped we will be to navigate challenges and create healthier, environments for our children.

In the Hub handouts area, we have a handout to help support parents and caregivers when presented with gaslighting behavior or statements.   (Responding to Gaslighting phrases) We created this because we know it can be hard, in the moment to come up with the words to use.  This helps provide some healthy language to respond in a kind, gentle way.   We want our families to know that it’s okay to set boundaries with people who consistently gaslight or undermine your experiences as a parent or caregiver. Responding assertively and with clarity can help parents reclaim their confidence and handle gaslighting comments effectively.  In the Hub Handouts we also have a journal prompt handout on when they are presented with unhealthy statements, how to replace those gremlin thoughts with more positive thoughts. This can also be useful when reflecting on various situations that have occurred. 

Overall, please seek support from people who show empathy, respect, and genuine understanding of the challenges you face in raising a child with a mental health diagnosis. Surrounding yourself with a supportive community can make a significant difference in your ability to navigate and thrive on this parenting journey.  We believe in you!