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The Damage Done by Constant Parental Gaslighting

Have you experienced parental gaslighting? It's time to trust yourself again.

Key points

  • Persistent parental gaslighting can be damaging to a developing child.
  • Gaslighting undermines the child's ability to trust themselves.
  • This results in insecurity, lack of confidence, underachievement, and over-dependence on others.
Source: Venita Oberholster/Pixabay
Source: Venita Oberholster/Pixabay

Being lied to by a parent is an extremely painful and often traumatic experience. It involves betrayal by the person you are supposed to be able to trust most. For children, the experience undermines their security, as they are dependent on the parent for survival. Gaslighting is a special form of lying that undermines the children’s confidence in themselves while at the same time undermining trust and attachment to the parent. Persistent gaslighting by a parent throughout childhood causes pain and damage to a child on many levels. This post will focus on how this affects the child’s ability to trust themselves and how to repair this damage.

Gaslighting is a form of lying where the person being lied to is made to feel crazy, stupid, or damaged for believing what is actually true. Here are a few examples.

When Rene turned 16, her father encouraged her to learn to drive and get her license. She told him that she didn’t see any point in learning to drive if she did not have a car. He told her that he would get her a car when she got her license. Months later, after she passed her driving test, they had this conversation:

Rene: Dad can we go car shopping today?

Dad: We don’t need a new car.

Rene: You said that you would get me a car when I get my driver’s license.

Dad: No, I didn’t. I told you that you can use my car when I am not using it.

Rene: I got my license because you said you would get me a car.

Dad: You hear what you want to hear.

In this example, Rene’s father either forgot that he had promised to buy her a car when she passed her driver’s test or he changed his mind. Rather than being honest with Rene, he gaslighted her. He represented to her that the disparity in their recollections of his promise is due to the fact that she cannot tell the difference between what people say and what she wants people to say. He is telling her that she cannot trust her senses or her memory. Stan had a similar experience with his mother.

When Stan was 11, he was woken by what sounded like his mother crying out in distress. He rushed into the living room to help his mother and found her with a man he had never seen before. His mother quickly got up and pushed him into his bedroom. She tucked him into his bed and told him that everything was fine and he should go back to sleep. In the morning, they had the following discussion.

Stan: Mom, who was that man you were with last night?

Mom: I wasn’t with a man last night.

Stan: I came into the living room because you were yelling and I saw you.

Mom: There was no man here. You were dreaming because you were half-asleep.

Stan: I saw a man with you. He had a beard.

Mom: You were dreaming. It happens when you are very tired. You should go to sleep early tonight.

Stan’s mother did not want to acknowledge to her son that she was with a man in their home the night before, so she lied about it and then gaslighted him. The gaslighting involves conveying to him that he does not know the difference between reality and his dreams.

A single episode of parental gaslighting will probably leave the child with some confusion about a particular occasion or about the ability to trust the parents in certain circumstances. When a child is repeatedly gaslighted by a parent, the child is very likely to develop a sense that they cannot trust themselves. Like Rene and Stan, these children are repeatedly told that they cannot trust their senses, memories, and understanding of reality. These children often grow up feeling insecure about their own abilities and learn to trust others more than they trust themselves. They often have difficulties making decisions or taking leadership roles. They suffer considerable anxiety and often underachieve, as they underestimate their abilities and lack confidence.

Any parent can gaslight their children, but most don’t as it is deceptive and destructive to the child, especially during the developmental process of childhood. Parents suffering from certain mental illnesses, such as borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, are more likely to gaslight others, because they are loathe to take responsibility for errors or unwanted consequences.

If you are a parent who gaslights your child during conflicts, it is important to stop doing so immediately. You may be causing lifelong damage to your child that will linger throughout adulthood in the form of anxiety, insecurity, underachievement, and over-dependency on others. You should tell your child that they are competent and that they can trust their own abilities to understand the world around them.

If you are a person who was subject to frequent gaslighting by your parent throughout your childhood and you continue to struggle with feelings of anxiety, underachievement, and over-dependency on others, you must take back your confidence as soon as possible. Doing so will require that you accept that your parent lied to you rather than taking responsibility for unwanted outcomes. If your parent lied to you, most likely they also lie to others. Understanding that this is your parent’s attempt to cope and that you are not actually incompetent is the first step. The second step is to verify your confidence by taking risks and trusting your own abilities rather than looking to others to validate your perceptions and memories. Though painful, this process can change your life by giving you a level of peace of mind that you never dreamed you could attain.

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Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

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