Gaslighting is a potent, but often obscure form of psychological abuse. The term comes from a popular movie, Gaslight. In the movie, the husband slowly and progressively gains psychological control of his wife by employing various mental techniques that lead her to doubt herself, become isolated, and eventually feel as if she is going insane. Altogether, these techniques are referred to as the process of gaslighting.
Because gaslighting can be very slight and insidious, many people are unsure how to identify it and how to prevent it so as to protect their children. Like its sister, Grooming, adults often use gaslighting techniques routinely for a variety of non-violent reasons.
The problem is, even if Grams or the kindly neighbor down the street are falling into gaslighting behaviors innocently, the patterns set up in early childhood can leave a lasting impression on your child, creating a vulnerability for future cycles of abuse.
“Gaslighting occurs when a person you trust to tell you the truth about reality, is, in fact, bending reality with lies. When this happens consistently over a period of time it causes you to question your sanity.” (Anna Valerious, Narcissists Suck)
“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” (Theodore L. Dorpat, “Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis“)
So, what is it, exactly? In as short a summary as possible, gaslighting is the method of making a person doubt herself and trust the person more than herself. This can involve rewriting history, implanting fake memories or distorting memories. It can involve questioning her motives and emotions or invalidating them. It can be as slight but profound as making her think she can't trust what she saw or heard with her own eyes and ears.
And although doing this to children might come from non-violent or even well meaning intention, as you're realizing, this is a precarious foundation for a child. We want to raise children who can trust their inner compasses, who can rely on their instincts, and who can accurately process what they see, hear, feel, and sense in the world around them.
The Primary Method
When it comes to small children, the primary method of gaslighting is emotional invalidation. Emotionally invalidating small children is a simple and fast way to gain control over or compliance from them. When you hear someone emotionally invalidating your child, it's a safe assumption that gaslighting has just occurred or is occurring.
"Chin up, Bud! I was only teasing."
"Hey, don't cry now. I didn't say anything mean. There's no reason to cry."
"You're not mad at him. He was only playing. Don't be immature."
"Why are you scared? It's just a mask."
"That means he has a crush on you! It didn't cause any blood anyways."
If you hear emotionally invalidating statements, quickly place yourself in the situation. Get down to your child's level, make gentle physical contact and gentle eye contact. Ask your child for details and listen closely. When you hear underlying emotions, pinpoint them, name them, and remind the child it's ok to feel them. Point out boundaries if they are involved. For example, "Whether or not Timmy likes you, it's never right to push you on the ground. Next time, tell him to stop and find an adult if he keeps chasing you."
The Secondary Method
The second process of gaslighting children will usually instantly sort out who is benevolent and who is planning to intensely abuse your children. This method might not be a common or frequent danger, but when it happens, it's time to take careful notice. It's the process of creating an alternate reality, often with emotional connection or emotional intimacy to the adult projecting the false reality.
Adults who do this for non-violent reasons typically are only using your child for basic emotional feeding. This is lightly related to objectifying people as "emotional supplies" in other topics such as dealing with personality disordered abusers. By creating and projecting a reality to your child, the person creates an artificial level of intimacy for bonding. This is very similar to the grooming technique that sexual abusers use, to create the "special secret" that only the abuser and the child know. The adult gets to "feed" off the positive emotions of the child, receiving joy, happiness, excitement, attention, love, and affection from the child in exchange for the projected false reality.
Wanting the child to participate in traditions, rituals, games or other "fun" play that is covertly imbued with a sense of reality is the main sign of secondary gaslighting. The important note here is that although the adult is playing a game, (or the adult justifies the method by telling other adults he's playing a game), the child is groomed to accept it as reality. Santa is real. Animals are really talking at night. Leaving food out for the Elves actually keeps them from turning evil. Etc, etc.
Signs of the second method include:
High levels of details about a tradition or ritual. So, it's not merely a fun game about Santa, but a careful description of who he is, what he will do in your home, how the child has to behave, where Santa lives...
A sense of secrecy, privacy, and intimacy. It's a special game just between your child and the adult. Others who "don't believe" have been tricked by a "bad" character in the game, or are lacking virtue (faith, hope, innocence...). Other adults can't be trusted to tell the truth or will try to convince your child to give up belief. The child might be encouraged to keep secrets or hide details from other adults and children.
Behavioral-based or focused. This might be when many parents start to notice something is happening. The child's behavior changes. The child might be scared to sleep at night because the elves are moving around in her room. Or the child tries to be "good" to earn the promised rewards. A sign that the person doing the gaslighting might have abusive plans is when the behavior involves the adult. For example, the child has to obey the adult. The child has to shower the adult with affection. "Give me a hug, remember, that's what good girls do!"
Breeds mistrust and doubt. The child starts to have trouble deciding what is real and what is not. Who is trustworthy, who is not. The child often begins to doubt himself, wondering if his senses work or if he's remembering things correctly. If another child or adult shares information contrary to the artificial reality, the child gets upset or anxious. If you try to affirm your child, you might realize your authority and trust is already eroded, and the child has already been warned that you are lying.
Includes other people. To help fortify an artificial reality, the adult will often enlist other cooperative people to prove to your child that she can't trust her own senses. This also creates a sense of isolation in the child, as she begins to think everyone else agrees and no one else has a different perspective. If you see other people playing along, the situation is probably pretty advanced at this point.
Combating these forms of gaslighting can be very difficult. They are slow, progressive, often hidden forms of manipulation. Adults from all walks of life and in all positions can use these techniques on your children. In the classroom, church nursery, at playdates, while babysitting, at family reunions.
As the child goes through the bonding process and her boundaries are broken down by the adult, she not only has trouble trusting her own instincts, but can then be taught to ignore or despise the input from other children and adults, namely you: the parent.
Once you've lost your position as a trustworthy ally, it can be a long and hard fight to save your child from this level of enmeshment. Although often times, this cycle is non-violent, such as a well-meaning Grandma trying to make Christmas "fun" for your kids, there are times where gaslighting is used deliberately to gain control of your child for additional abuse.
If this involves the adults in your life, the additional abuse might even be intended for you. For example, once the adult has broken down the natural barriers your child has, and gained control of him, he might then use the child to abuse you, and continue abuse that you experienced in your own childhood. You can read more about it here and here.
With your child isolated and artificially enmeshed with this adult, it leaves your child vulnerable to sexual abuse, emotional abuse/scapegoating, psychological manipulation, and more. It can also mean the child is forced to witness abuse of other children and told to keep it a secret. Sometimes, the witnessed abuse is woven into the story. For example, the adult might physically abuse another child in front of your child, then explain that the Elves told the adult to do it because the other child was misbehaving.
Whenever you notice gaslighting techniques, confront the person immediately. The sooner you confront gaslighting, the less damage your child can experience. This also sends a warning to the other adult(s) that you are watchful and will intervene. Ways to combat gaslighting:
Expose your child to a variety of beliefs, ideas, cultures, and people.
Encourage exploration and child-led fantasy, not adult-created stories.
Encourage your child to question the world around her and inside of her.
Find opportunities to affirm him and his impressions, beliefs, and conclusions.
Play the memory game, where she discusses a memory as SHE remembers it and you affirm it.
Spend time emotionally validating your child daily, accepting his emotions, especially tough ones.
Promote a sense of authentic intimacy with caregivers, family, and friends so the child has his heart filled and isn't eagerly searching for someone.
Explain the difference between a surprise and a secret.
Create a word or gesture to share when the child wants to play fantasy and make something "real" instead of trying to convince the child it isn't real.
Deconstruct the projected reality with information. Research the history of traditions and rituals. Watch movies together, read books, attend cultural events.
Emphasize healthy disagreement versus control and overriding another person. Model healthy ways to hold many viewpoints and to respect input from other people. Remind your child that she can hold onto her own memory, her own emotions, her own viewpoints even in the face of controversy, and even when a bigger, stronger, smarter, adult disagrees with her.
More resources on gaslighting:
Techniques and description
Connection to narcissism